Late last month following a loss to the Buffalo Bills, Ron Rivera suggested that he wanted quarterback Taylor Heinicke to play in a "more game-manager way." At first, the comments caught many off guard, as the Washington Football Team quarterback thrives when adjusting on the fly and making sudden improvisations with both his arm and his legs.
The following weekend, Heinicke led Washington to a thrilling 34-30 victory over his hometown Atlanta Falcons, putting his impressive adaptability and improvisation skills on display. But in the two games since, both Washington losses, the 28-year-old has done less and less of that, trying to be, in his words, "too perfect."
"I feel like I've just been trying to be perfect and trying to make the perfect read every play," Heinicke told reporters on Wednesday. "It doesn't really allow me to be who I am or allowed me to be my best."
Heinicke's risk-taking was at an all-time low this past Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. The quarterback failed to reach 200 passing yards in the loss while leading Washington to just 13 points against the previously 32nd-ranked Chiefs defense.
In fact, Heinicke's outing against the Chiefs was so underwhelming that Rivera was asked earlier this week if he'd consider benching the former Old Dominion standout for third-stringer Kyle Allen. The head coach firmly denied that would happen saying he has confidence Heinicke can turn things around.
Earlier this week, Heinicke met with several of Washington's coaches to discuss how they can alter his approach moving forward. Yes, Rivera wants Heinicke to be cautious with the football, but he also doesn't want his signal-caller to limit his playmaking and the on-the-fly improvisations that he's proven to be so good at.
"It's all about communication. I had a good talk with several coaches on Monday, and we sat down and had the conversation that we needed to have and it was good for me," Heinicke said. "It cleared a lot of things up and I think that we're all on the same page now. We'll go from there. But again, they saw it too. I felt it, that was overthinking, just trying to try to be too perfect."
Heinicke didn't get into specifics about what was discussed in his meeting with his coaches, but it appears that the quarterback left the meeting with a lot more confidence than he had before.
"It was nice to just sit down with those coaches, really clear things up and just have a new start," he said. "It’s a new week. You can't change what's happened the last two weeks. Let's start with a clean slate this week and work to get better.”
Heinicke exceeded all expectations when he dazzled for Washington in his spot start for Alex Smith in the NFC Wild Card round last January against Tampa Bay. Then earlier this year, he thrived against both the Giants and Falcons. In fact, he even gave Washington's offense a jolt when he replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 1.
With all of Heinicke's early success, it's easy for everyone to forget that he's only made seven NFL starts in his career. His struggles now are normal growing pains for many quarterbacks with so little experience.
"I think as the biggest thing is you want to be yourself and play like yourself out there, but don't make the bad decision. And that's something you have to keep on working every week. I'm not making excuses," Heinicke said.
"I've only started six games in the NFL," Heinicke continued. "I'm still learning, but that's no excuse to throw the picks I've thrown. I’m still learning. I'm still learning stuff about myself, what I can and can't do. Just I'll come here to the facility every day and try and get better and learn. That’s how I go about it.”
Throughout the season, Rivera has preached growth and development with his football team. It's another reason why he continues to give Heinicke, an overall inexperienced quarterback chances to continue to get better each week.
"It's really just about [Heinicke] growing and developing in our situation, so we'll continue to work with him," Rivera said. "I thought he's done some good things. He didn't have a good outing last week. He knows it. He's working on it to get better this week and we'll continue to see how it goes." This week, Heinicke has another tough challenge facing a 5-1 Green Bay squad and a Packers defense that is starting to hit its stride, even without All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander in the lineup. But when he trots onto Lambeau Field on Sunday, Heinicke will only have one thing on his mind: to be himself.
“Just try not to be perfect," Heinicke said. "If that first read is there, take it no matter what the coverage is. If not, let's just keep going. Maybe make a play and be smart about it. I think the biggest thing is don't be perfect, don't overthink, just play football like you've done your whole life.”