Washington's turnaround fueled by Taylor Heinicke's resurgence

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The quarterback making his return to Carolina did what he does best: He extended a play, running to his left and flipping a sidearm toss as a defender tried to corral him, converting a pivotal fourth down late that led to the winning points.

Yes, that is what Taylor Heinicke -- you were expecting someone else? -- does best for the Washington Football Team. It's one reason Washington has won two consecutive games, getting hot at the right time. It's what he did Sunday in helping Washington beat the Carolina Panthers, 27-21.

His play is part of Washington's growing identity, a team fueled by a physical run game and a quarterback's will.

"Confidence," receiver DeAndre Carter said, when asked what's different about Heinicke's game.

The same could be said of the entire roster. Suddenly, a team left for dead at 2-6 is 4-6 heading into Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) at home against the Seattle Seahawks (3-7). Washington is following a similar script to 2020 when it started 2-7 en route to a 7-9 finish.

Numerous reasons explain the two-game win streak. Washington has run the ball well -- behind a solid line, Antonio Gibson rushed for a season-best 95 yards Sunday. The rushing success means Heinicke doesn't have to produce big throws to extend drives. In the two wins, Washington has averaged 37 minutes, 30 seconds in time of possession.

The defense has held the past two opponents, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina, to a combined 31.6% success rate on third down.

But Heinicke also has starred the past two games -- a mix of efficiency and occasional big-time plays. In the past two games Heinicke has completed a combined 42-of-54 passes for 462 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. His total QBR in Sunday's win was a career-best 91.1.

"You can tell he has a rhythm out there," Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said. "He's very comfortable with the guys that are out there, he's comfortable with the playcalling. And when things don't look the greatest out there, he does a great job of improvising and keeping plays alive."

Like on that fourth down Sunday. Washington, leading 24-21 and at the Panthers' 43-yard line, needed three yards with 7:23 remaining. Heinicke looked at McLaurin, who was covered as he crossed the middle of Carolina's zone; he checked tight end John Bates, who wasn't open down the seam. His checkdown back, J.D. McKissic, wasn't open.

So Heinicke ran to his left, came to a skidding halt as linebacker Jermaine Carter approached. Carter reached back and grabbed Heinicke, who whipped a sidearm toss to Bates for six yards. The play lasted 8.15 seconds; it also led to a field goal.

"That scared the hell out of me, but that's him," Washington coach Ron Rivera said. "He has the ability; he sees things and he's got a very innate sense to him."

As McLaurin said, "Not too many quarterbacks make that play."

The quarterback on the other sideline, Cam Newton, often did. Heinicke spent one season as one of Newton's backups in 2018. One of his former teammates, Carolina cornerback Donte Jackson, was impressed Sunday.

"One thing about Taylor Heinicke, man, is you can always count on him to be a fighter. Be a competitor," Jackson said. "And just be a guy who plays to win. It don't matter if he has to hand it off 100 times or throw it 100 times. He really competed today and it was nice. I was very impressed."

Washington will look for another quarterback this offseason, hoping to find the franchise passer and end a decades-long quest. Heinicke is not viewed in that manner. But, as an underdog quarterback his entire playing career, he isn't focused on the future.

It's about the present. And the present -- the past two weeks in particular -- have been stellar.

In the red zone: From Weeks 3 to 8, a stretch when Washington went 1-5, Heinicke completed 12-of-23 passes for 68 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. In the past two games he has completed 6-of-7 red zone throws for 40 yards, three touchdowns -- all on Sunday -- and no picks. He threaded a tight-window throw on a 6-yard scoring toss to Cam Sims.

On third down: In Washington's four-game losing streak, Heinicke was 14-of-34 on third down for 165 yards and two interceptions. The past two games? He's 18-for-22 for 219 yards and two scores, one of which came Sunday to Carter.

Four games ago, Heinicke threw an interception in the red zone and coaches believed he was trying to be too perfect with his pass. He listened and, against Tampa Bay, he led Carter and scored.

"It's the culmination of a lot of things, but I've played better by going out there and having fun, being myself," Heinicke said, "and let my personality come out and that rubs off on some other guys."

Rivera saw what a mobile quarterback could do, having coached Newton for nine seasons in Carolina.

"When a guy like Taylor has that kind of ability, that can turn something into trouble [for the defense]," Rivera said. "It helps. He keeps his eyes downfield, he's trying to make plays."

But they want him to understand he must protect the ball. The past two games, Heinicke hasn't thrown an interception.

"That's extremely important if we want to keep this thing going down the stretch," McLaurin said.

Last year, Washington's surge was led, in part, by quarterback Alex Smith's leadership. Heinicke is not the same kind of leader; he's not experienced enough. However, Rivera likes the progress he has shown.

"After what he did last year, for the most part, guys have gravitated towards him because they felt with this guy that we have a chance," Rivera said. "I think now, you not only see [Heinicke] giving these guys hope and believe that we have a chance, but he is leading them. Very similar in style to the way that I thought Alex did. You see his growth and development."