Taylor Heinicke is not the player he was in 2018. He's not even the same player that he was in 2020.
There's a new and improved version of the gunslinger leading the Washington Football Team's offense, and the team has given him its full confidence heading into the Thursday night matchup against the New York Giants.
"I think just understanding the game even more so," head coach Ron Rivera said when asked about the improvements Heinicke has made. "He's learned to be patient, take what's given to him, and I think he has a really good feel for when he takes his shots, too."
While Heinicke has a better feel for the game now, the opposite was true when he made his NFL debut with the Carolina Panthers in Week 15 of the 2018 season. He feels like his game has progressed a lot since his three-pick, 274-yard performance against the New Orleans Saints. If you get rid of those mistakes, he said, you give yourself a good chance to win.
Heinicke's winding journey from that moment to joining Washington's roster is well-known by now. And between playing for the St. Louis Battlehawks and finishing up his degree at Old Dominion, he matured and learned how to limit his mistakes.
Case and point: he's completed 63% of his passes for 565 yards and three touchdowns to just one interception in his three appearances with Washington.
"Well, obviously we were pleased, '' Rivera said of Heinicke's performance against the Los Angeles Chargers. "We moved the ball well; we made some things happen. We moved the ball well early, too. We just didn't put it in the end zone; but with Taylor, we got one in the end zone."
The touchdown Rivera alluded to was an 11-yard toss to Logan Thomas that gave Washington a 16-13 lead. It was one of Heinicke's best plays of the day, aside from the 37-yard shot to Terry McLaurin. It shows that while he has learned to be smarter with his decisions, he knows when to take his shots.
Some people would call Heinicke a "gamer," but that's not the way McLaurin sees it.
"Taylor does a great job of preparing," McLaurin said. "That's why he's always ready. He never looks rattled when he's out there. And when he gets in the game, he makes the best out of any situation."
Part of how Heinicke is able to get the most out of every play has historically been the use of his legs. After all, it created the infamous diving touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that put Washington within two points of tying the score.
Heinicke's mobility is a critical part of his game, so don't expect that to change. But in the time since the Wild Card matchup, Heinicke has learned to protect himself so he can stay on the field. It was one of his goals this offseason, and Rivera saw the results of that work against the Chargers.
"He ran when he was supposed to run. A couple of times I think where he thought about turning up, he didn't and went ahead and went out of bounds. There was one when he didn't step up through the middle and did get a few yards and took a little bit of a shot. But again, I think he understands that he's gotta be more responsible with himself."
Heinicke knows there will be moments when plays break down in games. That's when he has the option to use his legs, but now it's more of a last resort as opposed to his first decision.
"Really try to get the ball in those playmakers' hands," Heinicke said. "And if things break down, then my legs can be a checkdown."
The coaches believe in the growth Heinicke has displayed over the offseason and training camp. The team had the option to sign a veteran, but it stuck with Heinicke because it knows the 28-year-old signal-caller can handle being the starting quarterback. And Rivera is excited to see one part of Heinicke's game that hasn't changed: the excitement that comes with him under center.
"He plays a little bit like his hair is on fire," Rivera said. "He plays a little bit like a gunslinger. But I think, and I hopefully believe that he's matured a little bit."