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Being named starter a full circle moment for Heinicke


Taylor Heinicke’s voice quivered with emotion as he spoke with FOX Sports sideline reporter Jen Hale after the Washington Commanders' 23-10 win over the Houston Texans. 

It has hardly been the first time Heinicke, who signed with the team as its quarantine quarterback in 2020, has been named Washington's starting quarterback. For those keeping count, this is technically the fourth occurrence: the first came during the 2020 playoffs, the second was in Week 2 of last season and the third was in Week 7 of this season. 

The common theme for all three of those moments was that he was the next man up and expected to slide back into the backup role once the original starter was either well enough to play or a better option came along. It was a tough reality, but Heinicke accepted it as part of the business. 

This time is different. Coach Ron Rivera named Heinicke the starter going forward because he earned it. His will to win has always been part of his skill set, but now he has paired that with growth as a player.  

After everything he has gone through, it is a full circle moment for the quarterback. 

"It's a dream come true," Heinicke told Hale. "Every week, I just approach it like it's my last week playing and try to have fun with it."

Rivera summed up the main reason why he has decided to roll with Heinicke for at least the team's next game against the Atlanta Falcons: "Winning," he said following the win over Houston, and the team certainly has done plenty of that since Heinicke stepped in for an injured Carson Wentz.

Over the last five weeks, Washington has won four of its last five games and put itself above .500 in the second half of the season for the first time since 2018.

Just as the team has improved since starting the season 1-4, so, too, has Heinicke's skill set since the last time he was the Commanders' starter during the 2021 season.

"I think it's a mark of improvement. There are some consistent things that he's doing. There's still, every now and then, he'll do something that you hold your breath."

Fortunately, Rivera and the Commanders fanbase have been breathing more sighs of relief than frustration over the past few weeks. Heinicke's gambles, which have always been part of his game, have mostly paid off, including the touchdown pass to Terry McLaurin against the Packers; the 33-yard completion -- also to McLaurin -- against the Indianapolis Colts that helped seal the victory; and the wild touchdown pass to Curtis Samuel against the Minnesota Vikings.

The margin for error throw like those is razor-thin -- almost nonexistent -- and yet Heinicke has put the ball exactly where it needs to go. Aside from the throw to Samuel that likely would have been picked had it not been for an official running into a defensive back (Heinicke joked after the game that the official should get a game ball), Heinicke's decision making on when to take calculated risks has improved from last season.

"You look back at last year, I was taking those shots in unneeded situations, and it turned out with interceptions, and it cost us points," Heinicke said. "Again, this year I've homed in trying to be a lot smarter with the ball, keeping the ball in our possession, especially with the defense playing the way it is."

The Washington Commanders won their fifth game in six weeks in convincing fashion in Week 11, taking down the Houston Texans in a 23-10 victory. Check out all the best photos from the road win. (Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)

Heinicke committed at least one turnover in four of his five starts, but there have been moments where those improvements are clear. His performance against the Texans was the best showing of that to date. His stats did not stand out on the box score -- 15-of-27 for 191 yards with no touchdowns -- but he often threw the ball away rather than force passes into difficult windows.

And more importantly, Heinicke did not commit a turnover for the first time since Week 18 against the New York Giants last season.

"I think the biggest thing for me is just try and be a clean quarterback," Heinicke said. "Get the ball in those playmakers' hands and let them do their thing. I know we're running the ball great right now. The offensive line is doing a great job protecting and running the ball. In crucial situations, our guys make plays. And I think that's huge for us."

Despite all those risky throws, Rivera said there is a calmness to the way Heinicke is playing in the scheme.

"It's funny I say that because sometimes he looks like his hair is on fire because he's so hyper," Rivera said. "I mean the dude is constantly going, and I think his teammates feed off of that energy, which has been a big plus."

Trusting the Commanders' playmakers has worked out for Heinicke over the last five weeks. The Commanders have averaged the seventh-most rushing yards over the last three games (147.3), and McLaurin has the third most receiving yards (792) in the NFC.

Both of those components, along with a stout performance from the defense, which has allowed the sixth-fewest yards per game this season, are part of a winning formula for Washington.

"This is the team you want to be on, be a quarterback for sure," Heinicke said. "With all the weapons we've got, offensive line playing the way they are right now, and the defense we have. And then you've got, heck, if you go three-and-out, you've got Tress Way bombing on the other side of the field."

Heinicke has helped Washington go from being at the bottom of the conference to knocking at the door of the playoff discussion. It is similar to last season, when Washington went from 2-6 to 6-6 with a chance to make a playoff push in the last five games.

Washington has an opportunity to improve to 7-5 against the Falcons, and who knows what will happen for the rest of the way. Either way, expect it to be another wild ride with Heinicke at the helm.

"There's that underdog mentality that people appreciate," Rivera said. "They appreciate the way he does things. And, again, whether he's the backup or he's the starter, he's all in. That's what makes him so viable, and that's why it's important for us to bring him here."

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