ASHBURN, Va. -- Wide receiver Terry McLaurin escorted quarterback Taylor Heinicke to the locker room after the Washington Football Team had nearly pulled off a big upset of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2020 NFL playoffs. McLaurin had an arm draped around Heinicke's shoulder as their teammates walked slowly into a tunnel.
"I appreciate you," McLaurin told Heinicke, who had been with Washington about a month when he was tapped to start the playoff game against Tom Brady's Buccaneers -- the eventual Super Bowl LV champion.
Later, in his postgame news conference, McLaurin said he would take Heinicke as his quarterback any day of the week.
It's that sort of confidence Heinicke built in a short time last season that he will need to keep building for the foreseeable future.
With starter Ryan Fitzpatrick on injured reserve with a hip injury suffered in last Sunday's season-opening loss against the Los Angeles Chargers and likely out 6-8 weeks, Heinicke must prove he can provide more than short-term relief for Washington (0-1). He will start against the New York Giants (0-1) Thursday at FedEx Field (8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network).
"We have complete and total trust in him to execute our offense," McLaurin said, "because he's done it before."
In seven quarters since joining Washington on Dec. 8 last year, Heinicke has completed 49 of 78 passes for 565 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Two of those games occurred in relief; the lone start was the 31-23 playoff loss to Tampa Bay, when Heinicke threw for 306 yards and a touchdown and ran eight yards for another score, diving for the pylon.
There was no crowd at FedEx Field that day, but he won over the fan base -- and, after he relieved Fitzpatrick in the Week 1 loss -- they showed him their affection. He completed 11 of 15 for 122 yards and a TD. Following the touchdown pass to tight end Logan Thomas, the crowd chanted "Hei-ni-cke!"
"He's a dude, who ... he's just tough," McLaurin said. "It's hard to describe or put in a box what he is and brings to our team."
In the playoff game, after one touchdown Washington defensive end Chase Young engulfed Heinicke in his arms, kept pointing to the name on the back of Heinicke's jersey and, in a high-pitched voice, shouted his name.
"It's his composure in the pocket," Young said. "You can see he never gets rattled, even when he's running around and juking guys out of the way. He still gets the ball down the field ... and even when he did make those plays, he looked like he was used to making those plays.
"He could start on any other team in the league."
There's a definite underdog quality to Heinicke. He starred at Old Dominion, a school that was in the FCS when he arrived and was a Division I newcomer in his final season. He's smaller than most NFL quarterbacks at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, and lacks a powerful arm.
When Washington signed him, he had returned to being a student at Old Dominion and was taking four math classes. After the 2020 season, his playoff showing earned him a two-year contract worth up to $4.75 million.
"All I know is when I'm out there, I'm excited to be out there," Heinicke said. "I want to play good football and win games. Maybe that's it. I try to give guys some energy."
But now he has to help give Washington some wins. While he is a good story, the reality is this: Heinicke has thrown 92 passes since entering the NFL in 2017 with the Minnesota Vikings. He has started two games -- his last regular-season start was in 2018 with Carolina. He did not play in the NFL in 2019 and wasn't on a roster again until Washington signed him.
Washington coach Ron Rivera had him on the team in Carolina, and offensive coordinator Scott Turner was with Heinicke in Minnesota and Carolina. Turner was the only NFL coach who went to ODU to work out Heinicke.
The Giants now have film on Heinicke with Washington and can prepare for him, albeit in a short week.
Heinicke has been injured in his two previous starts, bringing his durability into question. Coaches say he has improved with his progressions, his willingness to take deep shots and also his desire to protect himself. The latter will be a key element if he wants to keep the job.
"My game has progressed a lot, I think I've matured," Heinicke said.
He pointed to his three-interception start in 2018 for Carolina against Atlanta, when he said he learned a harsh lesson about not turning the ball over.
"It's just understanding the game more and his importance," Rivera said, "and how he doesn't need to put himself in harm's way. He's going to be patient and take what's given to him, and he has a good feel for when he takes his shots, too."
As a passer, Heinicke compensates for his arm strength by throwing to wide receivers in rhythm or before they break.
"One of the things Taylor really uses is his anticipation," McLaurin said. "He's really smart and it's like he knows where he's going pre-snap and confirms it post-snap. If it's not there, he creates a scramble-drill situation and then anybody is liable to get the ball."
Washington has a strong belief in Heinicke. The question he can now answer: How long will that belief last?