The Washington Post
Difficult decisions ahead
A season of a different sort generates same question: Who’s the quarterback?
A decade’s worth of developments packed themselves into the period between the ends of the 2019 and 2020 NFL seasons for the Washington Football Team. Coaches were changed, a name was dropped, lawsuits were filed, comebacks were made — and some football even was played. That’s a lot of churn to end up with the same foundational question that never seems to go away: Who’s the quarterback? Let’s go this far: Taylor Heinicke has to be on the roster, right? The news that Alex Smith couldn’t start Saturday night’s 31-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of the NFC playoffs at Fedex Field because of the calf strain in his nearly amputated right leg was a downer in the hours before kickoff. As immobile as Smith appeared to be in the victory that clinched the NFC East title — he was about as nimble as a grand piano without wheels — for three years, he has represented Washington’s best chance to win.
Heinicke was thrilling. He was daring. He was smart. He was athletic. He had the second pick in last year’s draft staring
into a sideline camera and pointing at the back of his jersey. How’s that for a fun moment; Chase Young pumping up this kid who was taking online math classes in November when the phone rang? Heinicke proceeded to ball out.
“He gained my respect, man,” wideout Terry Mclaurin said. “I got nothing but respect for number four. . . . That dude plays with no fear.”
“There’s some things that you just can’t teach,” tackle Morgan Moses said. “He has that ‘it’ factor.”
He went 26 for 44 for
306 yards and a beautiful touchdown pass, plus he ran for 46 yards and a lunging, I-don’t-care-if-i-hurt-myself score on the ground. Does that make him the starter in 2021?
“It was gutsy; it really was,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s one of those things that a guy like him who works hard at what he does, he’s created an opportunity for himself. And we’ll see what happens.”
Which is intriguing. Still, take a breath and ask another question: If he’s always this good, why in the world was Heinicke a backup for the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL? I will admit to less than a cursory understanding of the Battlehawks’ offensive scheme and whether it maximized Heinicke’s abilities. But the answer is: There’s a reason. All the promise of one playoff game can’t override the idea that Heinicke had bounced from NFL practice squad to practice squad to a couple of stints on active rosters to being out of football before he made his second NFL start Saturday.
So, then, Washington’s quarterback for 2021. Was he in uniform against Tampa Bay? Was he in the building? Where the heck is he? Who the heck is he?
It’s easier to figure out who won’t be Washington’s quarterback next season. It won’t be Dwayne Haskins, a first-round draft pick just more than 20 months ago who was cut last month — and who, frankly, never looked as promising or as polished in running Scott Turner’s offense as Heinicke did against the Buccaneers.
It says here that Smith, too, won’t be the quarterback. That’s too bad because his story is inspiring, one of the great comebacks in any sport after his broken, infected leg endured 17 surgeries — and then held up well enough for him to start NFL games again. It’s still remarkable, and reflects so well on Smith, that Washington’s record since 2018 when Smith starts is 11-5. With everyone else, including Heinicke’s give-him-a-cape performance against Tampa Bay, it’s 6-27.
But the calf injury that cost Smith the chance to return to the playoffs — not to mention kept him out of the penultimate game of the regular season and severely limited him in the finale — can’t be viewed as some sort of isolated incident. He will turn 37 in May. He has a titanium rod in his right leg. He owes nothing to anyone, and he has proved he could play again — to all of us but, most importantly, to himself. If he wants to try to play more, no one should tell him no. But, really, that’s enough football.
“Alex is unbelievable,” Rivera said. “Believe me: He’s a hell of a man.”
So who else? It’s such a paramount question, and no opponent could illustrate the importance of stability at quarterback better than the Bucs — who haven’t had it until they imported Tom Brady this offseason to instill it. Brady threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns against Washington, but before he landed in Tampa, he had led the New England Patriots to the playoffs 16 of the previous 17 years. The exception: when he suffered an injury in a season opener. Brady left New England, and the Patriots missed the playoffs. His departure isn’t the sole reason for that, nor is he the only reason Tampa Bay earned its first playoff win since the 2002 season. But there’s a correlation, for sure.
That consistency is foreign to Washington, a team whose proudest moments — three Super Bowl titles — came with three different quarterbacks. But you don’t have to go back to the glory days to find the wheel of fortune element to Washington’s quarterback situation. Have we played this game before? Even so, try again: Since Kirk Cousins’s departure after the 2017 season, list the players who have started under center here. (Hint: There are eight.)
Before we get to the answer, what might be potential solutions? There is intrigue in the quarterback market in the offseason.
Cam Newton is a free agent after an uneven season in New England. A decade ago, Newton was taken first in the draft by Carolina, whose coach was . . . who, again? Ah, yes. Ron Rivera.
Plus, something has to give in Philadelphia, where Jalen Hurts appears to have replaced Carson Wentz, who wasn’t drafted as — and isn’t being paid to be — a backup. Could Wentz revive his career two hours down I-95 — in the same division? ( Wentz’s contract would appear to be untradable, but necessity is the mother of invention, so who knows?)
The draft? Well, Washington picks 19th in the first round, which is four spots after it picked Haskins in 2019. It’s not impossible to find a franchise quarterback there, but you can’t count on it.
There’s so much to like about what Rivera has begun to establish here. So many Washington players — Montez Sweat, Daron Payne, Jon Bostic, Cam Sims and others — improved in 2020. Late-round picks and castoffs from other places — Kam Curl, J.D. Mckissic, Logan Thomas — became major contributors. Both developments speak to quality coaching. The defense could be a disruptive, top-fivein-the-league unit for years to come.
“We’re headed up,” Rivera said. “We’re on our way up.”
But the franchise can’t reach its full potential without a steady presence at quarterback.
Is it Heinicke? For now, he’s the answer to that trivia question, the eighth starter for Washington since Cousins left in free agency. He joins Smith, Haskins, Kyle Allen, Case Keenum, Colt Mccoy, Josh Johnson and Mark Sanchez.
That’s quite a cast. It represents where Washington has been at the most important position in North American sports. If Rivera is to bring to fruition what he has started, that list of characters can’t represent where his team is headed.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.