Taylor Heinicke gives COs some stability
And on Sunday inside Lucas Oil Stadium, a small measure of stability kicked in, a little late and a little sloppy, but at the most critical point in the game – and from the most important position on the field.
Commanders have a quarterback they can rely on. Even though their starter will be wearing a brace on his throwing hand for the next few weeks, they have pushed their winning streak to three games – the latest a 17-16 breakout against the Indianapolis Colts – with everyone’s favorite backupTaylor Heinicke.
Heinicke had been picked, taken two sacks and thrown for just 128 yards when he entered the field with 11:12 left in the fourth quarter. At that point, the Heinicke experience made you want to look away, and Washington trailed a bad Colts team by two runs.
But then, while playing maestro on a scoring effort that ended in a field goal, Heinicke completed an unavoidable pass to Curtis Samuel for 18 yards on fourth-and-six. And when he returned to the field with 2:39 remaining and the commanders down 16-10, Heinicke played with the pace he had been so comfortable with since his college days, leading a nine-game drive. and 89 yards which included another fourth pass to Samuel and a 33-yard strike to McLaurin.
Heinicke punctuated the moment with a one-yard touchdown tackle with 22 seconds left and, waiting for him to return outside the end zone, spiked the ball like crazy.
“As we say all the time, he’s a competitor. He’s going to show up no matter what happens in the game,” running back Antonio Gibson said. “If he has a horrible start – not to say he had one – but if he has a bad record, he’s going to show that next game and make it count at the end. That’s all we have need.
While the Commanders (4-4) have some sense of stability under center, the Colts (3-4-1) are still riding a quarterback carousel. And funnily enough, the last two guys they thought would stick around spent every Sunday wearing team clothes, the chic look of an inactive player.
Sunday should have been Carson Wentz’s reunion game. Wentz played last season — and only last season — with the Colts before team owner Jim Irsay got fed up with his poor performance late in the season and pulled the plug. Now with Washington, Wentz has missed the past two weeks as he recovered from surgery on his ring finger.
Matt Ryan, Wentz’s replacement to start this season and the guy who was supposed to clean up the mess, was benched this week in favor of third lineman Sam Ehlinger, who made his first career start.
Never shy of the spotlight, Irsay recently slotted in as an outspoken owner against his Commanders counterpart, Daniel Snyder. On this particular topic, Irsay made common sense points — yes, owners shouldn’t wait for the The NFL will decide Snyder’s fate. They need to step up. However, Irsay hasn’t been as lucid and precise with his methodology to stabilize the quarterback position in his franchise.
If, as French author Charles Baudelaire wrote, the greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince the world he didn’t exist, the second greatest must be Irsay to convince Indianapolis that the Colts were a Super Bowl contender if only they had the right quarterback.
And – ducks for cover — anyone who believed a 37-year-old Matt Ryan was an upgrade over Wentz was too gullible to buy into that lie.
Perhaps Ehlinger as QB1 shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given Irsay’s impatience and the Colts quarterback’s tempestuous room since. Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement in 2019. They have tried six starters since then. So while the Colts faced the aftershocks of the massive change, in Ashburn, Va., members of the commanders’ defense should have sharpened their knives.
They would face a quarterback whose sizzle reel consisted almost exclusively of preseason games. Understanding this, Washington defenders also knew the Colts’ roster would be significantly reduced for Ehlinger. Their main focus would be to stay disciplined and expect a buffet of short, quick passes meant to get the 24-year-old into a rhythm.
“They’re going to make it easy for him [plays]”, cornerback Benjamin St-Juste said during the week, “the thing that can make us nickel on the field.”
At least in Q1, death by a thousand stupid pieces seemed to work. Ehlinger was conservative but effective and completed six of eight attempts for 42 yards. He operated from the shotgun, using his feet (unlike his predecessor) to get out of the pocket and find a receiver a few yards away. Using that method — and mixing in last year’s rush champion Jonathan Taylor — the Colts put together an 11-play, 64-yard drive that carried over into the second quarter, hitting the first with a 46 yard field goal.
But Ehlinger didn’t always look comfortable. And credit that to the Washington front. In the second quarter, Ehlinger showed his ability to use his legs (unlike his predecessor), although he didn’t win a first down on his own but through a face mask penalty that moved his team down. Washington 13. Two games later, he thought he had another opening to get out of trouble, only for a crush of commanders to approach. Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen got to him first, and after Ehlinger lost the ball taking the sack, teammate Daron Payne recovered the fumble.
Overall, Ehlinger played well in his first start, completing 17 of 23 passes for 201 yards and producing a slightly better passer rating than Heinicke (100.1 for 98.7). Still, Washington has a quarterback who can straighten up if needed. It may not seem like much, but Indianapolis would love to have that luxury.
“It’s just more experience. The more reps you get, the more experience you get, the more comfortable you feel,” Heinicke said of his last two games as a backup starter. “That’s not to say I’m very comfortable with where I am right now. There’s a lot to improve. But the more reps you get, the more comfortable you feel.
In Washington’s last two drives, when he scored 10 unanswered points to come back and win, Heinicke went 12 for 14 for 151 yards. And his best achievement of the night seemed to turn out like one of those corny movie moments, at least for McLaurin.
“[Heinicke] did a great job … extending the game, and it was like slow motion,” McLaurin said. “He saw me, and I saw him, and that ball was in the air. My eyes were right on the ball the whole time.
Back in his hometown and playing on the same field where he won the high school state championships, McLaurin carried a contested fly ball against cornerback Stephon Gilmore at the Indianapolis 1-yard line.
“I can’t say enough [good] things about Terry,” Heinicke said. “He brings people together in the dressing room, he behaves very professionally and people want to fight for him. And seeing him fight for everyone too, that says a lot. The guy is a treasure.
Then, on the next play, Heinicke scored the game-winning touchdown. He walked off the field and back to his touchline, the recipient of all hugs and high-fives. Because he had wobbled, but he was steady when they needed him.