By Harry Minium

We watched him pass for nearly 15,000 yards and 132 touchdowns and set 32 school records and stage so many miraculous comebacks in four seasons at Old Dominion University that we already knew, didn't we?

We knew Taylor Heinicke had the arm, the brains, the determination and guts, the sweet moves when pressured in the pocket and the ability to float through the air and dive into a pylon if that's what it took to score a touchdown. We knew, if given the right opportunity, behind an offensive line that could protect him adequately, and with a coach who truly let Taylor be Taylor, that he had the right stuff to make it in the NFL.

Now America knows, too.

Heinicke became something of an instant star on a prime-time, national broadcast Saturday night in the most daunting of circumstances. He started for the Washington Football Team in an NFL playoff game against highly favored Tampa Bay and quarterback Tom Brady, whose six Super Bowl rings argue that he's the GOAT, or Greatest Of All Time.

The Bucs walked away from FedEx Field with a 31-23 victory, but not before Heinicke gave them a scare with an inspired, gutsy performance that drew rave reviews from the media and had his name trending on Twitter.

Heinicke completed 26 of 44 passes for 306 yards and ran six more times for 46 yards and a TD. He had one interception, a ball tipped by a defensive lineman, but otherwise was accurate on almost every throw, including at least four passes dropped by receivers. It was a remarkable performance from someone whom the media thought was terribly overmatched.

When it was announced he would start in the place of injured Alex Smith, ESPN commentator Mike Greenberg asked his 1.1 million Twitter followers "has there ever been a more one-sided quarterback matchup in the playoffs?"

On paper, he was correct. This is Heinicke's sixth year out of ODU, and at age 27, he's played in a handful of games after being cut by Minnesota, New England, Carolina and Houston. He was home in Atlanta, living with his sister, Lauren, and finishing work on his final semester of online courses at ODU when Washington called and asked him to fly up for a tryout.

He played well in the fourth quarter of a loss to Carolina two weeks ago, but that was his first game in two years. Last winter he was the backup quarterback for the XFL's St. Louis Battlehawks, and he'd only had a few weeks of practice with Washington.

"If there is a quarterback you would want in this scenario, Taylor Heinicke is on the short list," said Ron Whitcomb, who recruited and coached Heinicke at ODU and is his best friend.

"He's intelligent and he's a genuine run threat. He's always understood how the simple, small check-downs move the ball."

Heinicke quickly impressed Saturday with his ability to throw from the pocket and on the run and to especially elude defenders with his quick feet. His most electric play capped a 47-yard, third-quarter touchdown drive, in which he ran or passed for 45 yards, that trimmed the Tampa Bay lead to two.

On second and 4 from the 8, he was flushed from the pocket, ducked under a couple of linemen at the 20, then ran around the left end and, with four defenders bearing down on him, went airborne at the 4-yard line and hit the pylon with the ball.

"Bro what!?!?!" tweeted Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, considered by many to be the NFL's best QB.

Chase Young, the charismatic rookie defensive end from Ohio State, ran onto the field and as TV cameras took it all in, pointed to Heinicke's name on his jersey. Young has been a Heinicke booster for weeks.

Heinicke said he felt something "click" in his left shoulder when he hit the ground after touching the pylon. He headed to the locker room for an X-ray. Meanwhile, some on Twitter, who noted that he was knocked out of the game in his only other NFL start two years ago with the Carolina Panthers, speculated that he was hurt again and that maybe he's too soft for the pros.

Minutes later, Heinicke ran out of the locker room, with a determined look on his face, and you knew he was going back in.

He had a dislocated AC joint, or in medical terms, his clavicle (collar bone) separated from the scapula (shoulder blade). This separation won't need surgery, and he wasn't in danger of further injury, but, as he said, "It hurt like hell."

He grimaced the rest of the game before leading Washington to another touchdown and then on a drive that ended with an incomplete pass deep in Bucs' territory on fourth down.

His TD pass was highlight-reel worthy - he hit well-covered wide receiver Steven Sims in the hands on a down-and-out pattern just as Sims was heading out of bounds. The pass was so well thrown that a frustrated Brady turned around and yelled, "Unbelievable!"

Heinicke became only the sixth Washington quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards in a playoff game. The others: Kirk Cousins, Mark Rypien, Doug Williams, Joe Theismann and Sammy Baugh.

"My hat's off to you Taylor. You made us proud!" Theismann tweeted.

NBC broadcasters Mike Tircio and Tony Dungy, the respected longtime former coach, gushed over Heinicke

"Why hasn't he been playing in the NFL?" Tirico asked.

"I can't tell you how impressed I am with this guy," Dungy said. "He's leading the team. He's making all the right moves. He's doing everything right. What a performance."

Added Mahomes on Twitter: "Regardless of the outcome what a great game by Heinicke!"

The tweet had been liked or retweeted 150,000 times by 2 a.m.

Wrote ESPN analyst Mina Kimes: "Today we shed a tear. Tomorrow we rebuild. The Heinicke era has begun."

ESPN, CBS and Fox Sports all paid tribute to him, as did SB Nation and many other sports websites.


Those who've watched Heinicke throughout his career knew of his ability to read a defense and quickly find an open receiver. It's a gift, and it's been one of the keys to his success.

That gift appeared to be on the cusp of being wasted this fall. Early in the fall he said was discouraged that no team had invited him to an NFL training camp. He realized that if someone didn't call this fall or winter, his NFL dreams were likely done.

Nonetheless, he continued to work hours every day on his strength, speed and throwing with his personal trainer and friends. When the call came from Washington early last month, he was ready. Curiously, he got his shot because COVID-19 had depleted the number of available quarterbacks around the league.

One game does not a career make. But Washington coach Ron Rivera said he's earned a chance to compete.

"It was gutsy performance, it really was," he said. "A guy like him who works hard like he does, he created an opportunity for himself tonight. We'll see what happens. I'm very proud of how he completed tonight and helped our team."

Washington may be an ideal location for him. Smith works well with Heinicke, as does offensive coordinator Scott Turner, the son of former Washington Redskins coach Norv Turner. Scott Turner signed Heinicke when he was with the Minnesota Vikings.

"I love Ron Rivera," Heinicke said. "I want to be back here next season."

His teammates want him back, too.

"I can't tell you why he was on the street before we picked him up," offensive lineman Morgan Moses said. "I don't understand it."

"He gained my respect, man, I've got nothing but respect for No. 4," wide receiver Terry McLaurin added. "The way he just came in and handled his business. He was just prepared for this moment and that's what this league is all about it.

"He was going through some things out there. He got banged up. But you weren't going to take him out of the game. This dude plays with no fear.

"I'll take No. 4 on my team any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I hope he's my teammate in the future."

Heinicke said he gave little thought to his showdown with Brady, who completed 22 of 40 passes for 381 yards and two TDs.

"A lot of people have asked me what it's going to be like to go to go against the GOAT, Tom Brady," he said. "But I didn't really think about that this week.

"But looking back on this game the next couple of days, it will be something to be proud of. Everything that's happened the last month, I appreciate it all. I appreciate the coaches who believed in me and gave me an opportunity."

Asked if he has earned a shot in the NFL, he said he hopes so.

"I've been on the other side, not playing, being in the real world, and it's not fun, not as fun as this," he said. "I want to be in the NFL, I want to be playing ball. It's a dream of mine."

That dream appears far more possible than it was just a few days ago.

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