It was the fourth quarter and fourth-and-21, and after eluding the Tampa Bay rush, Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke chucked a pass into double coverage.
This was a prayer that could keep the miracle alive. A heave of hope that if secured by teammate Logan Thomas might prolong one of the most improbable NFL playoff duels imaginable – Tom Brady and his six Super Bowl rings against Taylor Heinicke and his, well, one career start before Saturday.
This is the stuff they make Disney movies out of – a journeyman from Old Dominion, a 27-year-old with 126 snaps to his NFL name, a guy who bounced through five franchises only to be waived three times and cut three other times all while almost never playing. He even spent a few weeks on the New England Patriots’ practice squad, ostensibly a teammate of Brady himself.
Now, however, they were, somehow, going toe-to-toe – the G.O.A.T. and that other guy.
Brady was seeking his 31st playoff victory, a record, of course. Heinicke was seeking his first victory of any kind as an NFL starter.
Yet inside the two-minute warning, the scoreboard read: Tampa Bay 31, Washington 23. A one-score game. Washington had the ball. Anything was possible.
Heinicke wasn’t on an NFL roster in 2019. In the spring of 2020, he joined the St. Louis BattleHawks of the XFL, only he couldn’t even win the starting job. When the league folded and NFL interest didn’t materialize, he thought it might be time to get on with life.
He re-enrolled at Old Dominion to finish his engineering degree. The 2020 NFL season went on without him. Then in early December, in the middle of finals, Washington called and offered him a job for the remainder of the season. It wasn’t glamorous. Washington basically wanted him to be a “quarantine quarterback,” just in case everyone else got COVID-19 and couldn’t play.
Hey, it was a chance. Heinicke asked his professors for extensions on his final exams.
“I had to email them and tell them the whole situation and ask them if I could take them after the season,” Heinicke said.
Ah, the old, I-just-got-signed-to-play-quarterback-in-the-NFL excuse …
“They were pretty nice about it,” he said.
Things progressed quickly. Due to injuries (Alex Smith) and immaturity (Dwayne Haskins), Heinicke found himself in Washington’s Week 16 game. He went 12-for-19 and threw a touchdown, just the second of his career. Smith returned for the season finale but then was ruled out of Saturday’s wild-card game with calf soreness.
Just like that, it was Heinicke against the future Hall of Famer.
Brady was Brady, 381 yards and two touchdowns passing. Tampa wasn’t great, but it operated a balanced attack that should have been enough to win comfortably against a no-name QB. Except, apparently, Heinicke didn’t get the memo. In fact, he said he made a point not to even think about how Tom Brady was on the other sideline.
“I just wanted to go out there and complete the ball,” Heinicke said. “Just complete the ball and get first downs.”
That he did. He made passes on the run. Then he ran when they thought he would pass. He brushed off mistakes. He threw for 306 yards and a touchdown. He rushed for 46 more yards and another score –closed out by a brilliant dive for the pylon that made it a two-point game at the time.
“He has that ‘it’ factor,” Washington offensive lineman Morgan Moses said. “You can’t teach it.”
The dive was painful though, causing an AC joint separation in his shoulder. A couple of hard hits on the next series sent Heinicke to the locker room, but he came charging back out on the field and didn’t miss a snap.
“It was gusty,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “It really was.”
All over the NFL, the questions were the same. How wasn’t this guy in the league? And where’s the guy who started over him in the XFL? (He isn’t in the league either.)
“He made a lot of plays,” Tampa coach Bruce Arians said. “He had a lot of poise.”
Now he needed one more. On third down, with the ball at the Tampa 49-yard line, he’d tried to do too much and got sacked. Now it was desperation, with a pack of Bucs coming at him. He spun around, backed up and finally heaved it.
Heinicke was trying to write that Disney movie. And Disney movies are fun. Reality is a different beast. The pass was high and floating. The Tampa defense knocked it down.
The dream was over. Tom Brady would win again. Afterward, they shared a moment of mutual congratulations.
“We put everything out there on the line,” Heinicke said. “But just came up a little bit short.
Heinicke’s moment in the spotlight isn’t necessarily over. He may never again get to square off in a playoff game against Tom Brady, but you play like that and you don’t register for any more engineering classes. Either Washington will keep him or someone will snap him up.
“A guy like him who works hard for what he does, he’s created an opportunity for himself,” Rivera said.
“I’ve been in the real world,” Heinicke noted. “It’s not fun. Not as fun as this.”
About that real world. The season is over, those finals await.
“Hopefully these professors will email me and say, ‘You passed, you’re good,’” Heinicke said as a joke.
“I’m pretty sure that won’t happen,” he continued. “In a couple of weeks I’ll take them. And hopefully pass them.”
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