Former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Taylor Heinicke notched his second career start in the nation’s capital on wildcard weekend. Much like the failed coup attempt a few miles away on January 6th, the attention of the national media was seized. Vikings faithful are intimately familiar with Heinicke as the 27-year-old began his NFL career in Minnesota about five years ago.
Heinicke is a part of a large fraternity of Vikings practice-squad players that fans obsessively crave (like Kyle Sloter or Moritz Böhringer). There is a feverish tendency by some to spot preseason glory and continuously correlate that success to hypothetical regular-season play. As if the general manager or coaches simply have not quite seen something that John Doe sees on his couch. It is armchair general management at its apex.
Well, that “told you so” sentiment was palpable on Saturday night when the Washington Football Team lost to the Tampa Buccaneers. Heinicke started the game because Washington was sans quarterback Alex Smith, who is battling more injury woes. And, the team severed ties with 2019 first-round selection Dwayne Haskins after he ignored coronavirus protocols and visited strip clubs and things.
Although Washington failed to win the game, Heinicke piqued the attention of national media outlets as many pundits were entirely unfamiliar with the Old Dominion alumnus. Former Buccaneers and Colts head coach Tony Dungy heaped praise on Heinicke throughout the broadcast. Pat McAfee called him a rockstar.
Indeed, the performance showed grit and sizzle. Yet, that does not mandate that the Vikings should have “never let him go.” There is no need for a jaundiced eye.
A Backup QB – in the XFL
When Heinicke broke onto the scene with the Vikings, it was a different time. Minnesota relied on staunch defense and hoped the offense could score about 21 points to win games. Now – and especially in 2020 – the roles are flipped. The defense is searching for healthy bodies and a reformed sense of identity. The offense – headlined by Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, Kirk Cousins, and Adam Thielen – is the group that is illustrated on bedroom posters.
The Vikings signed Heinicke as an undrafted free agent half of a decade ago. T.J. Clemmings was the starting left tackle. Terrence Newman started at cornerback. Laquon Treadwell was the sexy new toy. Times change. There is no earthly avenue in which the Vikings would “wait” five seasons for Heinicke to have his first moment on a colossal stage. To chortle that the Vikings “let this guy go” is nutty revisionist history.
Why? Heinicke was his own villain. He denied his chance at stardom with the Vikings because he reportedly kicked a glass door when locked out of a friend’s apartment and sliced up his leg. Sounds like a mature young man for a franchise to hitch wagons.
He also played in the temporarily re-defunct XFL – as a backup quarterback. That was last spring with St. Louis BattleHawks. Yes, them. His re-emergence into the NFL is a feat to examine as interesting or in a “good for him” light. A thirst for Heinicke to still be a member of the Vikings ignores a full five years of football.
Playoff Performance Good for an Unknown
Heinicke was pleasantly surprising versus the Buccaneers, but he was not mystical. His team did not even win. He completed 26 out of 44 passes (59%) for 306 yards, a passing touchdown, rushing touchdown, interception, and a 78.4 passer rating.
Pump the brakes. A Kirk Cousins statline of this magnitude inside of a playoff game would lead many to cry foul. We do that already when Cousins loses a regular-season game. A popular trend is to blame him for losses in 2020 when his offense stacks 30 points on the field while the defense surrenders 31 or more. Cousins, nor Heinicke, play defense. Adjudicating quarterbacks alone for wins and losses is puzzling.
On Saturday night, Heinicke played well for a quarterback that most Americans were just getting to know. It was an audition. Perhaps Washington will start him next September. Maybe he will play elsewhere. If Heinicke can capitalize on this one-game flair, he will essentially begin his career at age 28. The only notable signal-callers to do this successfully in recent history are Jake Delhomme and Kurt Warner. He must avoid the fate of countless others that have tried career take-offs at age 28 and failed, like Billy Volek or Matt Flynn.
Be Grateful and Carry On
The sensible takeaway is to be proud of Heinicke and wish him well — as was the mindset for players like Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, and Sam Bradford. In varying degrees, the careers of those men floundered when they departed the Vikings. Heinicke has a reasonable opportunity to be the outlier that “proves everybody wrong,” but that will take a lot more than two touchdowns in a wildcard playoff game.
His next two hurdles entail compelling a team to formally nominate him as a starting quarterback. There are no assurances that will actually happen. Thereafter, he will have to survive game tape. Oodles of quarterbacks have returned to orbit when defensive coordinators are allotted time to study their tendencies. Garnder Minshew II is a recent example.