Taylor Heinicke wants the football. As a senior at Collins Hill high school in Lawrenceville, Georgia he was named Old Spice (my brand!) National Player of the Year in Georgia. Mostly because Taylor passed for 4,218 yards and 44 TDs and Collins Hill went to the State semi-finals. Yeah Taylor wants the rock.

One September in 2012 while matriculating at Old Dominion University (ODU) Taylor passed for 730 yards and threw 5 touchdowns in one game! It is still the FCS record for most passing yards in a game. In his career at ODU Heinicke finished with 14,959 yards passing along with 132 TDs. He also rushed for an additional 1,320 yards and 22 TDs. Oh yeah, Taylor wants the pill.

A Grinder

With all that success, and at 6’ 1/2” and 210 lbs, it’s pretty hard to image a college Quarterback would go undrafted, but that didn’t stop Taylor Heinicke one bit. He signed out of ODU as an undrafted free agent with the Minnesota Vikings in 2015. Heinicke then spent the next several years trying to find his footing in a league that has little patience nor extensive practice time for Quarterbacks without a draft pedigree. So Taylor was a grinder; through the Vikings, Patriots, and finally the Houston Texans who activated him off the practice squad in December 2017. He made his NFL debut on December 25 when QB T.J. Yates went out with a possible concussion. Enter Heinicke who completes his first NFL pass and immediately exits with his own concussion on the very next play. Yikes! Heinicke is waved by the Texans in the 2018 off-season.

But one person’s loss is sometimes someone else’s gain. Heinicke was picked up off waivers by the Carolina Panthers in April 2018. With Cam Newton ruled out for the season, Taylor Heinicke appeared in 6 games, including his first NFL start vs the Atlanta Falcons (of course, right?). He lit up the Falcons with 33 of 53 for 274 yards and a TD, but with 3 picks. But what the heck, he’s gotta have some rust, right? He wants the football. However, in the game he injured an elbow and was relegated to the injured reserve list and was eventually waived by the Panthers in August 2019 in the last roster cuts of training camp.

Be a Goldfish

So why am I sharing all of this Taylor Heinicke “coming of age” info with you when you probably haven’t even heard of this guy? Well, because as a former FCS, and NFL QB1, QB2 and QB3, I relate to this kid. I know how tough it is to stick with a team as a backup QB in the NFL. I did it for 8 years. You’ve got to be resilient. You need the mindset of a closer in baseball or a cornerback in football. You will fail. You can’t dwell on it. You’ve got to look forward to the next opportunity and not look back. As Ted Lasso told his players, “Be a goldfish, they have a 10-second memory.”

So finally, in December of 2020 and after a COVID-aborted tryout with the St Louis Battlehawks of the XFL, Taylor Heinicke was offered a contract to the practice squad of the Washington Football Team (My old team. I refuse to call them Commanders). He’s promoted to the active roster on December 19 and played his first game in week 16 against the Panthers after Washington benched QB Dwayne Haskins in the fourth quarter. Taylor wants the rock! He comes in and completes 12 of 19 for 137 yards and a TD in the 20-13 loss.

Rags to Riches

Head coach Ron Rivera thought enough of Heinicke’s performance to name him the starter in Washington’s wildcard playoff game the next week against Tampa Bay. Its Showtime! Taylor completed 26 of 44 passes for 306 yards and a TD and rushed for another TD in a tough 31-24 loss. BUT, Taylor has earned his bones! He now has film, which is much better than a draft pedigree. That means he earned a new contract. In February 2021 Taylor signed a two-year contract extension with Washington for $4.75 million. Nice cheese for an undrafted free-agent.

And now the pendulum starts to swing his way. In the first game of 2021 with Taylor Heinicke at QB2, the starter, Ryan Fitzpatrick, goes down with a hip injury and is placed on injured reserve following the game. Rivera names Heinicke the starter and he immediately goes out vs NFC East rival New York Giants and throws for 336 yards and two TDs in a thrilling 30-29 victory. With this, his third start, Heinicke sets a new NFL record for most completions by a QB in their first three starts with 93. People, I’m telling you, not many NFL backups break NFL records. It’s a big deal.

Fast forward through 2021 and Washington gives Taylor the ball! He starts 15 games and goes 7-8 in those starts with 321 completions in 494 attempts (65.0%), 3,419 yards and 20 TDs with 15 pics. He also ran for another 313 yards and a TD. These are big numbers for a guy who did not come out of training camp as the QB1. It’s always been an uphill battle for Heinicke, and the 15 pics must have been troubling to Ron Rivera, because in the off-season the Washington Football Team would trade for Carson Wentz as their new QB1. Wentz was a former first round draft choice (2016) and led the Eagles to the Super Bowl in his second year. He had started for the Colts in 2021 and had delivered 27 TD passes against only 7 pics.

True Grit

The composition of an NFL QB1 vs the QB2 can be a very fine line. Carson Wentz was also an FCS QB coming out of North Dakota State. But Wentz is 6’5” and 237lbs. His arm strength is off the charts. He looks good coming off the team bus. At the NFL combine Carson was in the top three among QBs in the 40-yard dash, the broad jump, and the three-cone drill. Consequently, Wentz became the second pick taken in the first round (Behind Jared Goff) of the 2016 draft. Taylor Heinicke is just a tad over 6’ so you don’t really notice him off the bus. His arm strength is, frankly, average by NFL standards, and Heinicke was not even invited to the NFL Combine tryout. But, he has grit. There is no combine test for grit, it’s just something coaches need to recognize or you get lost in the shuffle.

So Taylor Heinecke started 2022 as QB2 behind Carson Wentz. But, he wants the pill. Wentz had some big games, but also a few clunkers. Then in week 7 Wentz breaks a finger and is out. Rivera goes to Heinicke. In his 2022 debut Taylor throws for 200 yards and 2 TDs with only one pic and Washington beats the Packers 23-21. You might notice Heinicke is in a lot of close games. He’s also on a lot of very average to poor NFL teams, but he keeps his team in games. He frequently prevails in these tight games. Call it Grit. The following week he completes 23 of 31 for 279 yards with one TD and one pic. Washington beats the Colts 17-16. Another close win. More Grit.

What Have You Done Lately?

Fast forward through 2022 and and Taylor Heinicke goes 5-3-1 in his nine starts for Washington. In week 16 Taylor was benched in the fourth quarter with the 49ers leading 30-14. In this league you’re only as good as your last game, or maybe even your last quarter. In week 17 Carson Wentz is back from injured reserve and Washington needed to win its final two games to make the playoffs. Rivera goes with Wentz in week 17 vs the Browns. Wentz responds with 143 yards passing and three pics. Rust, right? Washington is eliminated from the playoffs. Carson Wentz is released by Washington in February. He still has not signed with a new team in 2023. Yes, fans playing QB in the NFL can be a nasty business.

In March of 2023 Taylor Heinicke found himself in a very interesting position. He had tons of good film and he was a free agent. He was 29 years old (mature but not old) and had played in 33 NFL games including 25 as the starter. His mediocre teams had gone 12-12-1 in his 25 starts. He had completed 63.7% of his passes for 5,920 yards. He had 35 TD passes vs 24 interceptions. Yes, the pics are high, but remember, he was given the ball sporadically. Sometimes he was given the ball late in games out of control. Sometimes he was rusty. But overall he had an exemplary resume to shop around the league as a free agent. Keep in mind Washington had benched him vs Wentz and had drafted Sam Howell out of North Carolina in 2022. Howell appeared to be Washington’s flavor of the month.

Heinicke’s Three Factors

So Taylor Heinicke cut a deal with the Atlanta Falcons. Head coach Arthur Smith was very clear that Desmond Ridder (a third rounder in 2022) was the incumbent QB1, was a work in progress and Heinicke was coming in as the designed QB2 to support and bring experience to Atlanta’s Quarterback room. So after all he has been through why would Taylor Heinicke accept the concept that he would not compete for the QB1 job in Atlanta?

Three factors: 1. Heinicke is dripping with team leadership DNA. He loves the team concept and puts the team before himself. I’m sure this was a key element in the Falcons’ due-diligence before signing him. 2. Experience. At this point in his career he knows nothing is guaranteed at the QB position in the NFL. He has seen job stability blowup with one or two subpar performances by QBs in the NFL. So no matter the Falcons’ narrative on the commitment to Desmond Ridder, the young QB still needs to perform or he’s out. 3. $14 million.

On March 16, 2023 Taylor Heinicke signed a two-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons with a base price of $14 million. According to A to Z Sports the contract includes a $4 million signing bonus, a $1 million roster bonus in 2023, and a $1.32 signing bonus in 2024. Reportedly, the contract has $6.32 million guaranteed and includes incentives that could be worth up to a total of $20 million. Trust me, Taylor still wants the ball, but he’s got $14 million reasons to wait it out.

You’re Only Ever One Snap Away

Last Sunday the Falcons lost to the Tennessee Titans 28-23. The loss dropped the Falcons to 4-4 and a tie with the Saints for first place in the NFC South. It has been an up and down season for Desmond Ridder. In three previous victories Ridder had led the Falcons on the winning scoring drives. Taylor Heinicke was sitting quietly and supportively in the QB2 slot. Waiting. More recently Desmond Ridder was attracting some heat. Not just from the pass rush, but from the Falcons’ faithful. In the past 6 games Ridder has 11 turnovers with 6 fumbles and 5 interceptions. He has been sacked 25 times which ranks fourth worst in the league (BTW Sam Howell leads the league with 41 sacks). He’s holding the ball too long while reading the defenses.

But there is more to last week’s story. The Falcons and Ridder came into the halftime locker room down 14-3 to the Titans. The Falcons’ offense in 7 possessions in the first half could only generate a field goal. Then something “strange” happened. Arthur Smith would say later that Desmond Ridder needed to be run through the concussion protocol at halftime. Hmmm. He summoned Taylor Heinicke and informed QB2 he would be starting the second half. The Falcons needed a spark. Smith was giving Heinicke the ball.

Recall Taylor Heinicke has had rust all over him for the past 8 weeks. That means you are not getting reps at practice since QB1 is young and in development and HE needs as many reps as possible. So trust me, Taylor has seen little to no work with the first team or the game plan over the past 8 weeks. Heinicke’s response? He takes the Falcons’ offense on four scoring drives (out of 6) in the second half (2 TDs and 2 FGs). The Falcons lose 28-23 after a Falcons’ wideout drops a perfect pass on fourth and one to end the game. Heinicke’s boxscore: 12 of 21 for 175 yards and one TD no turnovers all in one half! Grit.

QB Controversy in Atlanta?

So now the Atlanta press is all over Arthur Smith after the game just buzzing for a Falcons QB controversy. Was Ridder ok? Yes. According to Smith he could have played if needed in the 2nd half but they wanted to err on the side of caution with his health. Who is QB1 this week? Smith: “We will go slowly to make sure Desmond is 100% healthy. If he’s healthy he’ll play.” The press wants more. They smell blood (i.e. a scoop) in Flowery Branch. So the press moves down the food chain a bit during Falcons’ practice this week to confront Taylor Heinicke. Is there a controversy? Do you think you’ve earned the starting job? Don’t you deserve to play?

We know by now Taylor wants the ball, right? Plus, he’s proven over 25 NFL starts he can move the chains. But we also talked about his leadership DNA and his respect for how difficult it is to operate as a QB1 in the NFL. Some people call it the hardest job in sports. So Taylor answers the QB controversy question with “Oh no, this is Desmond’s team. He’s played great throughout the year.” Heinicke added, “There were a couple of hiccups here and there, but he’s progressing every week.” Trust me people, this is not the standard answer for QB2s in this league. Quite a few QB2s can smell the blood in the water before the press does. Many QB2s’ answer would be something like, “Well, it’s Arthur’s decision but I’m ready to play if he needs me.” Botta boom.

Not His First Rodeo

Heinicke added, “My role is the same as it was in Washington the last two years. We brought in Fitzpatrick and he was the guy. I did everything I could to help him… Did the same when they brought in Wentz.” And finally, “This isn’t foreign territory for me.” Taylor ended the interview with, “I grew up watching Brett Favre at Green Bay. He always looked like he was having fun. So, I go out there in the second half (last Sunday), have some fun and sling it around and so score some points. We just fell a little short.”

The Falcons have the Perfect QB2

This, sports fans, is the perfect NFL backup Quarterback. Credit Taylor Heinicke for putting his team first and having Desmond Ridder’s back. But also credit the Atlanta Falcons for the due diligence they did to ensure their plan of developing Demond Ridder (win or lose) would not be sidetracked by a quarterback controversy. By an overly ambitious QB2. Also credit the Falcons for paying the freight to get the best available NFL backup. So far the Falcons got it right. They have a stable Quarterback Room (including QB3 Logan Woodside) that can provide alternative solutions when needed. Team confidence can soar when a backup QB provides that needed spark. Frankly, I’d like to see Arthur Smith use Heinicke more, albeit in the QB2 role. Keep him ready. Give him a series or two when a change of pace is needed. What’s certain is; Taylor Heinicke wants the ball. He always has… and he knows what to do when you give it to him.

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