I will never forget watching when the Washington Football Team (something I will probably never get used to calling them) was playing against the Carolina Panthers last season. My wife Samantha and I were sitting at a bar in Key West, Florida and my eyes were glued to the screen. “Who the hell is #4, I thought to myself?”
I literally had no idea who was suddenly playing quarterback for the team I have been cheering for 40 years. Washington had started Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen and Alex Smith at quarterback (QB) during the 2020 season and now #4 was on the field slinging the ball deep – and he was looking good doing it – I mean really good. This #4 was looking good to me as a fan – and he was looking good to me as someone who spent four years scouting on the greatest staff in NFL history.
Google pulled up Washington’s roster on my phone and I saw his name was Taylor Heinicke. He finished the game against Carolina 12/19 for 137 yards and one touchdown. I thought, “Not bad for a guy I’ve never heard of.” Heinicke then faded back to the obscurity he had come from for the remainder of the season. When I began researching him I saw he was from Old Dominion (a school I have never evaluated anyone from) and he had spent time bouncing around with Minnesota, Houston and Carolina, which is why he was now probably in Washington, because Ron Rivera had him there when he was the coach of the Panthers.
It was not until the week of the Wildcard playoff game against Tampa Bay, I began hearing the name again – Heinicke. By this time, I wondered if either had or would be doing any endorsements for Heineken beer. All reports had indicated Smith would get the start. However, that changed at the last second and Heinicke was named as the starter with Washington’s season hanging in the balance. If that was not enough pressure, Heinicke looked across the field and saw the G.O.A.T. staring back at him, Tom Brady. That would be enough for me to go find an air sickness bag anywhere I could if I were him.
Instead, he played like he was born for this. I was amazed as Samantha and I looked on at another sports bar watching and cheering in Key West.
And then came, “The moment,” which was the play when Heinicke completely sold out to cross the goal-line. I leapt out of my bar stool like I was shot out of a cannon. In a bar full of fans, mostly cheering for Tampa Bay because of where we were at, everyone turned and looked at me. I yelled, “Yes baby, Yes #4 is going to do this thing – #4 IS GOING TO DO THIS THING!” I was jacked!
I go back with the team to 1982 when I grew up a fanatical fan of the Redskins while growing up in Minnesota – and to me – that run by Heinicke was the biggest moment in team history since John Riggins’ run on 4th and 1 in Super Bowl XVII. And yes – I have seen all the rest of the historic runs too, Darrell Green’s hurdling punt return against Chicago, RGIII’s electrifying run against Minnesota, Timmy Smith running over Denver in Super Bowl XXII, etc…etc…
Despite Heinicke’s heroic efforts, Washington lost the game. Heinicke went 26/44 for 306 yards and one other touchdown pass. It was the first time in a very long time I teared up at the end of one of the team’s games – and I was the kid who threw up and missed three days of school when the burgundy and gold lost to the Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII. As a young adult, when my first fiance broke up with me in the mid-90’s she left saying, “We probably would have ended up getting married had the Redskins had a couple of good seasons.” Since the late 90’s and all throughout the 2000’s, however, I am the guy who told anyone who would listen that the only thing that made the Redskins – the Redskins – was the logo on their helmet. This team had not resonated with me for a very long time since Joe Gibbs and Bobby Beathard left, but this Heinicke led team resonated with me. It was a team led by heart.
I have seen all the first round QB’s come and go, Heath Shuler, Patrick Ramsey, Jason Campbell and Robert Griffin III. That is not who Washington is. Washington is castoffs like Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and low-round picks like Mark Rypien. I saw all of them play too. Heinicke fits that mold of what works for this franchise.
I could not believe it. The ink had barely dried on the Washington Post newspaper the day after the loss to the Bucs when social media began buzzing, “So who are we going to get to be our QB next season?” Excuse me? We just got done watching one of the best efforts in franchise history and we are collectively now asking who our QB will be next season?
Will it be Deshaun Watson – could it be Derek Carr – might it be Aaron Rodgers – or will they dig up Bart Starr? Whoever it is – let’s trade the farm! No, the guy is Heinicke.
Here we go, now we have QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, the “savior” who has never been able to stick anywhere and is on the verge of becoming the first QB in the history of the National Football League to lose to 31 teams – maybe he is the answer? No, he was signed as an expensive insurance policy, just in case #4 gets injured. I believe Rivera is not coming out and saying this in order to avoid the fan base prematurely charging his office door. Rivera will instead wisely let it play out in camp and in the preseason and get everyone on board that way. There is also a reason why I am not saying anything about QB Kyle Allen – a QB I gave an average (C) grade to in 2019 and has been as exciting as watching paint dry when I saw him play for the Panthers and again last season for Washington.
A true franchise QB is someone who can actually lead the franchise – and most importantly he is someone the players actually respond to. We saw what Chase Young’s response was after Heinicke’s heroic run as he emphatically pointed at the back of that #4 jersey. I have not seen the team rally around a quarterback with that kind of excitement since Rypien. That told me, as an evaluator, everything I needed to know. The mechanics, the school he is from, the arm strength, who his agent is, what round he was drafted in or even if he went undrafted does not mean anything, just ask Kurt Warner. I love Heinicke, and I love how his story gives the rest of us hope and reminds us all not to give up on our dreams. He did that for me. Washington has the guy and it is #4.
And who am I to make such a statement that flies in the face of social media – I am someone who looked Bill Belichick in the eyes and convinced him to hire me.
Daniel Kelly is a former NFL scout with the New York Jets. He was hired on the regime which featured Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Scott Pioli, Mike Tannenbaum and Dick Haley. He currently writes for Sports Illustrated Detroit Lions and he is a contributing evaluator for Draft Diamonds. For more information about him visit his website at whateverittakesbook.com. He can be followed on Twitter @danielkellybook and his Facebook page is WHATEVER IT TAKES NFL TALK.