Taylor Heinicke's life is about to look a little different than it did in the previous 18 months.
It was not too long ago that Heinicke was studying for classes at Old Dominion and had to put his finals on hold in order to become the Washington Football Team's "quarantine quarterback." Now the 27-year-old signal-caller has re-signed with Washington on a two-year deal. That will put his degree on hold for now, but it is a fair tradeoff for job security in the NFL.
Heinicke has only had two starts in his career, but he played as if he had nothing to lose in both; that is one of the reasons he earned a new deal with Washington. But now he knows he will be part of the team's immediate plans at quarterback, which changes things for him. He does not want to switch up his style too much, but he does want to ensure that he can play longer than just one game.
"You have to be consistent," Heinicke told local reporters. "That's what makes quarterbacks great. That's what wins games. When I go out there and train, I try to be perfect, complete all the balls, put them all where I want them to be, have my feet on time and stuff. You work on the same things every year; you just try to get better at it and polish it up."
The grit and willingness to compete that Heinicke showed against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs is exactly what earned his teammates' respect and won over the fanbase. He extended plays with his legs, looked to drive the ball downfield with his arm and even came back from a shoulder injury to bring Washington within eight points of tying the eventual Super Bowl LV champions. He finished the night 26-of-44 for 306 yards with a touchdown and interception in a 31-23 loss to the Buccaneers.
Heinicke has tried to model his playing style after the likes of Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, and that was apparent as he kept plays alive by scrambling and dodging one defender after the other. On no other play did that pay off quite like his eight-yard diving touchdown run, where he dipped under would-be tacklers before running to the left corner of the end zone and just barely reaching the ball over the pylon for the score. The play drew universal praise from his teammates, who called him "a true pro" for his efforts.
"Obviously, it's the playoffs, so the guy took a dive. He got a little banged up from it, but that's what you want from our quarterback," offensive tackle Morgan Moses said after the game. "You couldn't ask for any more than that as a teammate and as a player."
Heinicke did not know if he was going to get another chance. For all he knew, Washington could have decided to move on from him after the season, and he would have gone back to focusing on finishing his degree at Old Dominion. But now that he has earned his next opportunity, he does not have to sacrifice his body on every play to prove he can perform; his biggest priority is to stay upright and healthy for an entire season.
"The two times I've started and played, it's been kind of wild because, again, those were my two times to make a name for myself," Heinicke said. "I understand -- say I was starting in Week 2 -- I'm not diving for that pylon. I'm going for that first down, getting out [of bounds], and I've got four more downs to get a touchdown."
Heinicke pointed out that in the two starts of his career -- the other was in 2018 with the Carolina Panthers against the Atlanta Falcons -- he has gotten injured. He doesn't want to change his playing style, though; after all, that is what helped get him to this point in his career. He plans on putting on some weight in the offseason to be more durable, so the next time he takes a hit trying to make a play, he will not have to worry as much about getting hurt.
"I don't want to change anything. I want to keep working hard to still have that same attitude and see where it takes us. Again, I thought my mindset was right. Everything was going well; I just didn't have the opportunity until just recently."
If Heinicke needed any validation that he prepared the right way, head coach Ron Rivera provided that on The John Keim Report earlier this month. He said Heinicke "took the bull by the horns and was pretty good." But Rivera also mentioned that Heinicke was in situations where he could "cut it all loose," and he is intrigued to see what he does next.
"Now, all of a sudden, it's going to be different and he gets this opportunity," Rivera said. "How is he going to approach it? Is he going to cut it loose or is he going to play a little more conservative?"
Heinicke has always felt as if he had one foot in and one foot out of being in the NFL. He fought for years just to make a 53-man roster or even just the practice squad. Thanks to his mindset of giving his all on every play, both of his feet are now planted firmly in the league, and that gives him a feeling of security for the future.
But don't mistake that for complacency. He plans on being the same player that has drawn strong support from fans over the past six weeks. The only difference is that now he wants to make sure that style can last for as long as Washington needs it.
"My style of play with extending with my feet and stuff like that," Heinicke said, "I think that's part of my game, so I don't see myself changing that in any way."