Taylor Heinicke had flirted with the possibility of turning over the football throughout the first half against the Green Bay Packers. On a third-and-5 in the second quarter, De'Vondre Campbell made him pay for it.
Campbell jumped a route by J.D. McKissic and wrestled the ball from the running back's grasp. He faced little opposition on his way to the end zone, and as the Packers put the bow on a 14-3 lead with an extra point from Mason Crosby, the same sinking sensation that haunted Washington all season seemed to creep into FedExField once again.
And yet Heinicke was unflapped by the unhappy turn of emotions in the stadium. In fact, the moment was the start of a turning point for the quarterback.
After dragging his feet with a 0.0 passer rating and missing on his first four pass attempts, Heinicke finished the afternoon completing 60% of his passes for two touchdowns and the pick six. It was a refresher course on why Washington fans have come to love Heinicke, and it served as a reminder that the team can win with the quarterback at the helm.
"The thing about him is we've got a tremendous amount of faith in what he can do," said head coach Ron Rivera. "You look at the things that he does and the way he handles it. Understanding what his mistake was, understanding what he had to correct."
There was plenty of hype when Rivera announced that Heinicke would be the starter while Carson Wentz recovered from a fractured finger. Along with backing from the coaches, Heinicke's teammates expressed their full confidence in him to lead them.
However, Heinicke's performance in the quarter-and-a-half left much to be desired. His timing was off, and that was clear by the number of times his passes were either a little ahead or behind his targets. Even before the disastrous pick six, his third down fade to Cole Turner was too high and thrown too hard for the rookie to pull it down.
The incompletion forced Washington to settle for a field goal after being gifted a short from a muffed punt by Packers returner Amari Rodgers.
"The first half, that's the jitters," Heinicke said. "Again, I haven't played a full game in a long time. I was excited, so there were a lot of missed throws there in the first half, but the promising thing is that I was on all the right reads."
That could have been frustrating, but Heinicke did not view it as such. Instead, he focused on the fact that things could quickly turn around by just completing his passes and stringing together good drives.
Finally, after a 24-yard run by Robinson, Heinicke connected with Antonio Gibson on a nine-yard score, marking his first passing touchdown since Dec. 26, 2021.
"The sooner I can get the ball out of my hands, the easier it is on the offensive line and the more completions I'll get," Heinicke said.
But Heinicke pointed to the second half as the stretch when he began to find his stride. He completed his first seven passes of the third quarter, including a 37-yard shot to McLaurin that gave Washington a 17-14 lead.
"I think Taylor couldn't have done a better job putting the ball where it needed to be," McLaurin said. "It's almost like it just came to me out of the sky. I told him that's probably our best route that we've had since we've been together. You can tell that gave a jolt to our offense and some energy."
McLaurin noted earlier in the week that Heinicke plays as if every game is his last, and the quarterback agreed with the assessment. Said Heinicke: "Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, but that's just how I play. I think that's when I do my best."
Heinicke was asked if his style is like "backyard football," and he did not disagree with that, either.
"That's the fine line that I'm trying to find and try to be aggressive and smart at the same time."
Heinicke completed 13-of-16 passes in the second half and delivered some clutch plays along the way. On a third-and-8 in the fourth quarter, when Washington was clinging to a 20-14 lead, he aired out a pass to Curtis Samuel, who made the reception for a 26-yard gain. Washington got all the way down to the Packers' 2-yard line before extending its lead with another field goal.
But one of the most important passes of the game came in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, when Washington faced a third-and-9 and needed a conversion to run down the clock.
With the Commanders lined up in empty formation, Heinicke backed up to the 33-yard line before heaving the ball to McLaurin, who made the 12-yard catch for a first down.
"It's one of those things that when he's up there and he's playing fearless and very quick, he gets that ball out on time and it allows for those types of plays," Rivera said.
Heinicke was not perfect on Sunday; the first half is enough of an example of that. His performance for the rest of the afternoon was something to build on, though, and with a little of that "Heinicke flare," it could make for a winning formula as the Commanders enter the second half of the season.
And of course Heinicke knows there will still be doubters; he does not care. Instead, he wants to focus on the people who support him and prove them right. There might be a few more believers after Sunday.
"That means more to me than anyone else who has something negative to say," Heinicke said. "That was kind of the message...that Rivera gave us, and he's right. I want to prove the people that believe in me right, more than anybody else."