USA TODAY International Edition

Washington believes in Taylor Heinicke

Unheralded QB is the ultimate Ron Rivera player

- Mike Jones Columnist USA TODAY

LANDOVER, Md. – Riverboat Ron chose to gamble, not once but twice.

First in the offseason, and then again as Plan A went to pot just 16 plays into the season opener.

The Washington Football Team’s head coach could have – and some would say should have – found a more experience­d, or more highly touted backup to starting quarterbac­k Ryan Fitzpatric­k during the spring.

But rather than sign a veteran in free agency, or use an early draft pick on one of college football’s best options, Rivera decided to roll the dice with Taylor Heinicke – the fourth- year, undrafted journeyman.

The 37- year- old Fitzpatric­k ( himself a career journeyman) had all of the traits needed to help Washington contend, Rivera believed. And Heinicke, although still raw with only nine NFL game appearance­s to his name before this season, offered adequate depth and potential.

But Rivera and Washington didn’t even get a full game out of Fitzpatric­k. A hip subluxatio­n early in the seasonopen­ing loss to the Chargers sent the quarterbac­k to the injured list.

With veteran quarterbac­ks sitting on the free agent market, Rivera could have altered his course.

But instead, he stuck with Heinicke, declaring him “The guy,” even with the

Giants coming to town for a crucial, early- season NFC East Division matchup.

“He has a swagger to him, and his teammates feed off of him,” Rivera explained of the 28- year- old Old Dominion product, who had on short notice filled in admirably for an injured Alex Smith in Washington’s playoff appearance against the Buccaneers last January. “We’ve watched the way those guys do feed off of him, and it’s pretty impressive.

“We just have a feeling that if he can make some things happen and guys can rally around him, we can get some momentum.”

Heinicke rewarded Rivera for his endorsemen­t Thursday night against those Giants, outdueling Daniel Jones while surviving a roller- coaster performanc­e to lead a game- winning drive as Washington prevailed 30- 29 on a last- second Dustin Hopkins field goal.

Heinicke helped the defending NFC East champions even their record at 1- 1 overall and 1- 0 in the division.

It certainly wasn’t a flawless performanc­e. At times Heinicke struggled with accuracy or displayed questionab­le decision- making.

Early in the game, he took an unnecessar­y sack, burying his team deep in its own territory.

Late in the game, he threw a potentiall­y game- losing intercepti­on at his own 20- yard line.

But amid all the shortcomin­gs, Heinicke remained unflappable and resilient, displaying that very swagger of which Rivera spoke and the toughness that garnered the respect of his teammates last postseason and throughout this summer’s training camp and the preseason.

With the pressure at its most intense point, Heinicke shined the brightest. Rebounding from the intercepti­on by driving Washington the length of the field in the final two minutes of play, positionin­g his squad for Hopkins’ winning kick.

The player who entered the game with just 589 career passing yards and three touchdowns and three intercepti­ons in regular- season play passed for 336 yards and two touchdowns Thursday, with the intercepti­on.

Heinicke also earned the first win of his young career, and in so doing, he strengthen­ed his hold on the starting job after affirming the belief of his bosses and teammates that their playoff hopes remain alive on his shoulders.

“You’re looking at a team who has 100% confidence in their quarterbac­k,” defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, one of Washington’s captains, declared after the game. “We’re 100% behind him. We truly believe we can win with him, and I think he’s shown that time and time again.”

It’s one game, but the playoff performanc­e ( although a loss) and the daily approach Washington’s players and coaches observe fuels their confidence.

Nobody cares that Heinicke doesn’t boast the strongest arm, or that while perhaps generously listed at 6- foot- 1, 210 pounds, he’s not the biggest guy. Durability has been an issue both in the NFL and in college.

Those within Washington’s organizati­on only care about Heinicke’s mental makeup, approach to the game, and the results.

Rivera would rather roll with this undersized quarterbac­k of low pedigree because he embodies everything he wants not only in his signal- caller, but his team as a whole.

Heinicke is relentless.

He works and prepares tirelessly. He’s always ready, and when adversity strikes, he absorbs the blow and swings back.

“He’s always ready for his moment, and I love guys who are always ready for their moment and are always prepared,” said wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who caught one of Heinicke’s touchdown passes. “He doesn’t complain about what reps he doesn’t get when he wasn’t the starter. He just makes the most of his opportunit­ies.

“He did a great job of controllin­g the tempo tonight, and in various situations, he slowed it down, made great passes, took what the defense gave him and gave the playmakers an opportunit­y to make plays, and when you have a guy like that, you just want to make plays.

“We’re lucky to have Taylor.” Again and again, Heinicke responded to adversity against the Giants. He opened the game by throwing a near- intercepti­on, and two plays later took a bad sack rather than throwing the ball away.

The Giants took the lead, but Heinicke found his rhythm and led Washington on consecutiv­e scoring drives to take a 14- 10 lead.

New York rallied again to retake the lead twice more, but Heinicke ripped off two more strong responses. He extended plays, he audibled into more favorable situations, and he made big throws.

A two- play, 75- yard scoring drive featuring a 56- yard pass to running back J. D. McKissic and a 19- yard touchdown to Ricky Seals- Jones with 4: 33 left should have positioned Washington to run out the clock.

But an ill- advised throw wound up being intercepte­d by Giants cornerback James Bradberry, setting up the Giants to take a 29- 27 lead with two minutes left.

In the franchise’s long history of quarterbac­k futility, Washington has seen many a passer crumble in response to such transgress­ions.

But seeing two minutes on the clock, and comfortabl­e running a hurry- up offense because that’s all Old Dominion used for his four years there, Heinicke knew he could position Washington to win.

And he did.

“He was like Russell Wilson out there. He was calm,” McKissic said. “He wanted to make a play. Wanted to do what it took. Only thing on his mind was winning.”

Hopkins’ make from 43 yards out lifted Washington to victory, and teammates praised the kicker’s resilience.

But teammates on both sides of the ball couldn’t discuss the win without highlighti­ng the inspiratio­n drawn from the scrappy new leader of the offense.

More formidable defenses than that of the Giants await, and the young quarterbac­k likely will encounter more ups and downs.

But Rivera believes Washington can live with that, because rather than perfection, they’ll take the grit and potential that they see in Heinicke.

 ?? GEOFF BURKE/ USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Washington quarterbac­k Taylor Heinicke scrambles away from Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams at FedExField.
GEOFF BURKE/ USA TODAY SPORTS Washington quarterbac­k Taylor Heinicke scrambles away from Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams at FedExField.
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 ?? TERRANCE WILLIAMS/ AP ?? Taylor Heinicke threw for 336 yards and 2 TDs in the Washington Football Team’s 30- 29 comeback win against the Giants.
TERRANCE WILLIAMS/ AP Taylor Heinicke threw for 336 yards and 2 TDs in the Washington Football Team’s 30- 29 comeback win against the Giants.

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