There were so many ingredients to this 32-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, and the quarterback wasn’t necessarily high up the list. But the Commanders won a game against the class of the league. And Heinicke’s record since Wentz went down with a broken finger in Chicago is 3-1. Wentz’s was 2-4. The quarterbacks’ passing numbers aren’t wildly different. Their vibe is. Logic has to prevail.
“I’ll talk to you guys tomorrow,” Coach Ron Rivera said late Monday night, standing at a lectern on the other side of a wall from where his players boisterously celebrated.
Why wait? Here’s the evidence.
“It’s really big when your quarterback, your leader, is a guy who’s galvanizing the team,” star receiver Terry McLaurin said. “You can just see it in [Heinicke’s] eyes. No game is over, no drive is dead when he’s back there.”
Look, the Heinicke experience isn’t smooth, and even beating the Eagles doesn’t sand it down to glossy veneer. It requires gnashed teeth and squinting between fingers that cover your eyes. It demands understanding and acknowledging limitations and knowing the search for a long-term solution at quarterback lies ahead, as it does eternally with this franchise.
But given how Heinicke has played in his four starts since replacing Wentz — and how the Commanders have responded to him — how can Rivera go back to Wentz for Week 11 on Sunday in Houston? With Heinicke, there’s enough to like. List the qualities.
“His grit,” Rivera said. “His — just the way he plays. He’s a guy that — it’s hard to beat the underdog mentality sometimes. Like I told you guys: That’s him.”
There are a couple of elements here, and they’re not all statistical. Indeed, bury Heinicke’s 17-for-29, 211-yard line Monday night — without a touchdown pass and with both a pick and a lost fumble — because it’s ugly. The box score isn’t where he looks best, and it almost never is. In fact, he’s not even the main reason the Commanders hung in there against the Eagles. That would be a commitment to running the ball that led to dominating the clock, which went nicely with Joey Slye’s four field goals — including bombs from 58 and 55 yards — not to mention a pair of fourth-quarter Eagles fumbles.
But Heinicke should be the starter. He has to be.
“The biggest thing with me: Let’s just go win,” Heinicke said. “Let’s keep winning — whether it’s me playing or not.”
The evidence would suggest the Commanders have a better chance of winning when he plays rather than when he sits.
The plays from Monday night that perhaps best display why Rivera should stick with the backup as the starter go down as an incompletion and a sack. That’s right.
The first came in the second quarter, when Washington trailed 14-10. On first down near midfield, center Tyler Larsen snapped a high heater over Heinicke’s head. The quarterback sprinted back to make sure he regained possession of the ball, which was Smart Move No. 1. But instead of sliding to cover it, he made the more aggressive play to pick it up. He made sure he was wide of the pocket. And then he heaved a pass out of bounds — which reached the line of scrimmage, eliminating intentional grounding.
Instead of second and, say, 30, the Commanders had a reasonable second and 10. The drive ended with Brian Robinson Jr.’s I’m-tougher-than-you one-yard touchdown run that gave Washington the lead.
“That might have been one of the biggest plays that no one’s going to talk about,” Heinicke said.
Talk about it. Could Wentz have gotten back to scoop up the errant snap — or had the wherewithal to understand that throwing it away was absolutely the right play under the circumstances?
The bet here is no, in either case. More disturbing, though, is the second part. In his career before he arrived in Washington — five years in Philadelphia, one in Indianapolis — Wentz earned a reputation as a player who chose the hero ball over the check-down, the throw into traffic over the safe outlet. It’s an established fact that Heinicke doesn’t have the physical skills Wentz does, starting with his arm. But it’s undeniable that there’s a savvy and awareness about his game that might not result in big gains yet can prevent devastating losses.
That’s important, and it surfaced in the play that sealed the game. With 1:45 left, the Commanders faced third and seven at midfield. They called a slant to McLaurin.
“I was not going to throw it unless he was wide open,” Heinicke said.
He wasn’t. So Heinicke took a knee — gifting a sack. But then Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham gifted a late hit and a new set of downs. There’s luck involved there. Maybe Heinicke helps create it?
Heinicke isn’t impervious to disaster, as his opening-possession fumble that led to the Eagles’ first score shows. His fourth-quarter interception last week contributed directly to the Minnesota Vikings’ comeback. At times, he seems to close his eyes, throw it up — and hope. The play to McLaurin that beat Indianapolis counts. The toss to Curtis Samuel into triple coverage against Minnesota that became a touchdown counts, too.
And the heave, on Monday night, that provided the Eagles new life in the fourth quarter — third and three from the Philadelphia 43, hoping for McLaurin deep but instead finding safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson — certainly counts as well.
But think through all those qualities. Don’t they apply to Wentz, too?
There’s this little matter as well: Should Wentz play 70 percent of the Commanders’ offensive snaps, the third-round pick Washington owes Indianapolis as part of the package it sent to the Colts becomes a second-rounder. Some math, then: Entering Monday night, the Commanders had averaged 65.8 offensive plays per game. Hold that average, and they’ll have 1,119 snaps for the year. Seventy percent of that would be 783 snaps. So if Wentz plays roughly 11.9 games, he would reach the threshold.
Wentz has already played six complete games. After Monday, there are seven left. He can’t be allowed to play them all. The difference between a second- and third-rounder is significant.
Yet there’s a path to that predicament being exactly what faces the people who make these decisions. At 5-5, the Commanders are in the thick of the NFC playoff race — where there’s Philadelphia and Minnesota and then everybody else. If Rivera believes Wentz gives the team the best chance to remain there — or if Rivera still wants to prove the trade was worth it — might he play him, ramifications be damned?
One guy costs $28.3 million this season. The other averages $2.375 million over two. But let’s not get into a throw-good-money-after-bad exercise. Indeed, if Rivera is thinking about resurrecting Wentz’s season merely to justify the deal, he should listen to himself earlier this month.
At the trade deadline, the coach and his front office dealt ineffective (and injured) cornerback William Jackson III — whom the same regime signed to a three-year, $40.5 million contract a season-and-a-half ago — to Pittsburgh. The explanation: Jackson was a bust, and they said so.
“Hey, we made a mistake,” Rivera said the day after that deal. “And so instead of prolonging the mistake, halfway through the year, we decided to go another direction.”
That only makes sense. Can he apply the same logic at quarterback?
It has long been established that Taylor Heinicke isn’t a franchise quarterback. But let’s acknowledge that neither is Carson Wentz. The former beat the Eagles on Monday night. The Eagles gave up on the latter, with good reason. Regardless of health, it should be Heinicke in Week 11 — and beyond.