Commanders' Taylor Heinicke says he's a different QB from last year

ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke said he's a different player than last season. Now he'll get a chance to prove just how much.

When Heinicke starts against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, he'll be able to draw upon his 2021 experience, when he started 15 games for the injured Ryan Fitzpatrick. Now he'll start for Carson Wentz, who fractured his right ring finger.

"I feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident," Heinicke said. "I was a little overwhelmed last year; it was my first time starting 15 games and it gets to you a little bit."

It's still unclear how long Wentz will miss. He remained in Los Angeles this week to rehab his finger after having surgery Monday night. The Commanders hope to know Friday whether or not he'll need to be placed on injured reserve, which means he'd miss at least four games.

Until Wentz returns, Heinicke will start. His first one comes against the team he grew up cheering for thanks to his father's Wisconsin roots. Heinicke said one of his last memories with his late father involved them watching Green Bay's Super Bowl victory after the 2011 season. It made last year's game at Lambeau Field special for Heinicke; it'll provide more juice for this start as well.

"To go to Lambeau last year was super neat and to get that first start this year against Green Bay at home is going to be super cool," Heinicke said.

Washington (2-4) has struggled at quarterback for decades and that hasn't changed under coach Ron Rivera. This is the ninth time Washington has had to make an in-season quarterback change, whether because of ineffectiveness or injuries. It's the third time Heinicke has come off the bench to start.

The hope for Washington is that Heinicke can spark an offense that has struggled the last four games. After scoring a combined 55 points the first two games, the Commanders managed just 47 in the next four. Wentz was under duress because of pass protection issues; he also was still adjusting to a new offense.

But Heinicke's mobility could at least help. He rushed for 313 yards last season, including 95 in a 24-10 loss at Green Bay. Wentz has a stronger arm and more size, but was unable to extend plays this season. Wentz was sacked 23 times; Heinicke was sacked 38 times in 2021.

"His ability to extend plays is really big for us," Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said. "The heart he plays with, a lot of guys galvanize behind that. You never know what you'll get with Taylor and that's the fun part of it.

"He's a guy who you have confidence in his ability to make plays. It may not be the prettiest or what you're used to every Sunday. ... He's playing like it's backyard football, but playing within himself."

Heinicke also said he's noticed a difference in his arm strength. That had long been the knock on Heinicke, but he said after working with quarterback trainer Adam Dedeaux this past offseason, he has seen a change. They worked on using his hips more when he throws.

"The way he's driving the ball down the field is better for us receivers," McLaurin said, comparing his throws to last season.

Teammates have turned to him when they have questions about the offense, considering he's played for Washington since December 2020; he spent one year in this system in Carolina and another one with Minnesota.

But a large appeal to Heinicke remains his popularity with other players. During the open locker room sessions for the media, Heinicke is often sitting at his locker chatting with teammates. Two years ago when he came off the bench to spark the offense, and lead a near upset of Tampa Bay in the playoffs, it energized teammates. Defensive end Chase Young would often point vigorously to Heinicke's name on the back of his jersey.

"I always say he's the coolest quarterback in the room with the most swag," rookie receiver Jahan Dotson said.

Rivera understands that appeal.

"The guys rally around anybody that's going to step up and compete and do the things that you need them to do," Rivera said. "It's kind of that underdog story."