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Inside Ron Rivera's Decision To Switch Quarterbacks Vs. Panthers

Taylor Heinicke gets ready to run a play against the Carolina Panthers (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)
Taylor Heinicke gets ready to run a play against the Carolina Panthers (Elijah Walter Griffin Sr./Washington Football Team)

Life comes at you fast as an NFL quarterback, even when you're trying to finish up your online college courses.

That's the situation Taylor Heinicke found himself in when he received a call from the Washington Football Team about being its "quarantine quarterback" in Week 14 as he was preparing to take his final exams. One week later, he was signed to the active roster from the practice squad when Alex Smith was ruled out against the Seattle Seahawks.

In Week 16, with Washington's offense struggling and trailing, 20-6, head coach Ron Rivera put Heinicke in the game during the fourth quarter to give the team a chance to beat the Carolina Panthers and earn a playoff berth. He finished the game 12-of-19 for 137 yards and a touchdown that pulled Washington within seven points of tying the score.

"I thought it was gutsy," Rivera said of Heinicke's performance. "I thought he took advantage of what they were doing in terms of playing soft and allowing him to take [throws] underneath, allowing him to hit certain throws. I thought his decisions to take off and run were outstanding. I thought he had great vision. He went through his progressions, read the defense...and gave us a chance, which is all you can ask."

It was clear that Washington's starting quarterback, Dwayne Haskins Jr, was struggling in the first half. Three of Washington's four turnovers came from him, including a pair of interceptions in the second quarter. He threw incompletions on his first four passes and entered halftime 6-of-15 for 36 yards.

Those stats gave Rivera reason to start the third quarter with Heinicke at quarterback -- he even considered it -- but he wanted to see how Haskins and the offense responded to being down 20-3. Washington was in the same position last week against the Seattle Seahawks and nearly put together a comeback in the fourth quarter.

The difference between the two games was that Washington was able to move the ball in the second half against the Seahawks. It was able to get a field goal on its opening drive of the third quarter Sunday, but after that, the same problems persisted.

"The one thing I kept thinking about was when we came out last week, we were able to move the ball and put points on the board," Rivera said. "So I was hoping for the same thing."

Haskins' final play of the game was on a 4th-and-2 at the Panthers' 36-yard line, which resulted in a six-yard sack. But Rivera said it was a "sum of the parts" from Haskins' performance rather than one play that led to his benching. "There were some opportunities that he had missed. To give us a chance, I wanted to see what Taylor could do."

It helped that Rivera had previous experience with Heinicke. He appeared in six games with the Carolina Panthers and completed 61% of his passes for 320 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions. Heinicke also had experience with offensive coordinator Scott Turner dating back to his days with the Minnesota Vikings.

"It's huge," Heinicke said. "When I got here, I didn't really have to learn a new offense. It was an offense I was already familiar with. For 3-4 years, I was with Scott in Minnesota and Carolina, so it's not like I had to come in and learn a new playbook. I was able to come in where I left off."

Heinicke entered the game with about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, and while the possession did end in a turnover on downs, he was able to direct a 70-yard drive and put Washington in position to score with three minutes left. Heinicke's goals were simple: move the ball and put some points on the board.

"I kind of stressed to the guys once I got in the huddle, 'Let's go down, be clean and let's go and score some points," Heinicke said. "I thought we did a good job."

When Heinicke took the field, Chase Young, who had been named a team captain before the game, aimed to provide some motivation. He does not recall what he said, but he remembers Heinicke saying, "This is what I do."

"After he said that, I was like, 'OK, he's got some swag with him,'" Young said.

Heinicke followed up his first possession by leading Washington on a 91-yard drive -- its longest of the game. He completed four of his six passes for 72 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown to running back J.D. McKissic. Heinicke said he prepares each week as if he will be the starting quarterback, and that extra work finally paid off.

"We are always ready to play. I didn't know if I was gonna play today, but once the fourth quarter started, Scott told me I was going in and we went from there. Again, I think we did a pretty good job. We will look at the film and there are probably some things to improve."

It has been a bizarre month for Heinicke, but he would not ask for anything different. He went from focusing on finishing a college semester to fighting for a spot in the playoffs. His future for the last week of the season is unknown, but no matter what it includes, he will be ready for it.

"I was prepared for this moment," Heinicke said, "and I am fortunate that it happened."