Column: Washington riding the Heinicke roller coaster right into playoff contention

Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke passes against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)

What a difference a week makes.

This time last week, many — myself included — were saying of Taylor Heinicke, “Great game, now do that against someone other than Tampa.”

On Sunday, in his old stomping grounds of Carolina, he had the best performance of his career in a crucial Washington victory for the second straight week. Heinicke’s 141.3 passer rating and 92.5 QBR are not only career highs by far, they’re objectively outstanding — especially when taking into consideration that performance came against a defense that still stands as the top-ranked unit against the pass.

Hell, I’m still shaking my head at this play:

That, my friends, is a playoff caliber play. And Heinicke might just be playing the Burgundy and Gold right into a postseason run.

Look, I’m man enough to admit my campaign for Cam Newton to Washington took a hit like a Pro Bowl punter against Sean Taylor. While I stand by my statement that Washington would be better off with Cam in the immediate future (and Cam wasn’t a bum Sunday; he had a 120.5 passer rating and scored all three Panthers touchdowns despite only being back in Carolina for 10 days), Heinicke was definitely the more efficient and effective quarterback on Sunday.

This much we’ve learned in this 2021 season: Washington goes as Heinicke goes. Yes, that’s true of most quarterbacks but it is truly a rollercoaster ride with him. Heinicke has nine touchdowns and only one interception in Washington’s four wins, and the Burgundy and Gold are 3-1 when Heinicke has a passer rating over 100.

In Washington’s six losses, Heinicke’s TD:INT ratio plummets to six touchdowns and eight interceptions. Also, no quarterback in today’s pass-happy NFL should complete fewer than half his passes and have a 47.6 passer rating like Heinicke did against the Saints.

That said, Washington’s improvement has been more than just Heinicke. Over the last three games, the Burgundy and Gold has rushed for an average of 132 yards and the defense has allowed just 281 yards and 19 points per game. If the D held those averages all season, they’d currently rank first in yardage and fifth in scoring.

Doing that against Tom Brady and a rejuvenated Cam Newton in successive weeks makes it far more impressive considering Washington is without its top edge rushers and not facing the slew of backup QBs it did down the stretch last year.

So if the defense can continue to hold up its end of the bargain and Terry McLaurin stays healthy, Heinicke should be able to game manage Washington to winning football similar to Alex Smith last year.

Using Smith as a reference point sets the bar pretty low; Heinicke’s 91.4 passer rating is vastly superior to Smith’s 78.5 in 2020, and his 66.2 completion percentage is almost identical to Smith’s 66.7 even though Heinicke has done significantly better at pushing the ball down the field.

Oh, that passer rating, by the way? The undrafted and unheralded Heinicke has a better one than first-rounders Tua Tagovailoa, Baker Mayfield and Matt Ryan and is within three points of Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. Also, Heinicke’s QBR is higher than Russell Wilson’s and within two points of Dak Prescott — all while playing behind Washington’s injury-riddled offensive line.

I’m not saying Heinicke is the long-term answer at quarterback, which the franchise has been desperately searching for decades, but he’s demonstrated in most of these nine straight starts that he is at least a serviceable one with a high ceiling.

If he can find consistency and some more good fortune, the best-case scenario for Heinicke falls somewhere between Kurt Warner and his hero, Brett Favre.

But Washington doesn’t need him to be Superman but for a couple of crucial plays per game, like the 4th-and-3 Sunday. Heinicke should Clark Kent his way to wins if Washington maintains its recent stretch of not shooting itself in the foot.

Given Washington’s notoriously woeful 2-17 record at home on Monday Night Football since FedEx Field opened in 1997, if Heinicke outduels Wilson to beat the desperate 3-7 Seattle Seahawks in primetime — a team that’s beaten the Football Team in three of the last four meetings, winning all of them in Landover — it would be a massive statement that the Burgundy and Gold are a team to be reckoned with as the calendar flips to December.

And maybe even January.

Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is WTOP's Senior Sports Content Producer, which includes duties as producer and host of the DC Sports Huddle, nightside sports anchor and sports columnist on

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