Taylor Heinicke keeping Commanders QB job after winning 4 of 5

HOUSTON -- Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera needed only one word to describe why he is sticking with Taylor Heinicke at quarterback.

"Winning," Rivera said after Washington's 23-10victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday.

Rivera made official what had been reported before the game: Even if Carson Wentz returns and is ready to play next week, Heinicke will continue to start. The Commanders (6-5) have won five of their past six games and are 4-1 with Heinicke starting.

How long that lasts remains to be seen. But Heinicke will definitely start next week against the Atlanta Falcons.

"He doesn't need to play well. He just needs to play. We just need to continue to do the things we're doing," Rivera said. "I'm not looking to pull anybody. ... This is not a competition as far as a controversy. That's the last thing on my mind. That's why we talked about doing it one game at a time."

Heinicke called it a "dream come true" to earn the job the way he has, by leading his team to wins. He said his mindset won't change now.

"I take every opportunity I can get and have fun with it," Heinicke said. "Something may change in two weeks and he's back in there. Who knows? But this week I'll have fun with it, go out there and hopefully get a win. I feel I play my best doing that."

Heinicke completed 15 of 27 passes for 191 yards, zero touchdowns and zero interceptions in Sunday's win over the Texans (1-8-1).

The stats were not gaudy, but Heinicke has helped Washington climb back into playoff contention. Heinicke has been more consistent, Rivera said, though his daredevil ways sometimes reemerge.

"Every now and then he'll do something where you hold your breath," Rivera said. "[But] I see what he does. He systematically leads us down the field, we score points, and we do the things we need to."

Rivera said he has spoken to Wentz and that he was "very good" about the decision.

Wentz remains on injured reserve because of a sprained right ring finger suffered in an Oct. 13 win at Chicago. He was eligible to come off IR this past week, but Washington did not feel he was ready.

Last week, Rivera said he would take the mood of the locker room into account when deciding who would start at quarterback. Washington's players have shown how much they enjoy Heinicke.

"There's an underdog mentality that people appreciate," Rivera said. "They appreciate the way he's done things. Whether he's the backup or the starter, he's all-in. That's what makes him so viable and why it was important for us to bring him here."

It's also possible that Wentz returns to the starting lineup sooner rather than later -- but only if Heinicke and the offense struggle and the Commanders start losing again.

"I just want to keep this thing rolling," Heinicke said. "The biggest thing for me is to try to be a clean quarterback, get the ball in those playmakers' hands and let them do their thing."

Washington made a solid investment to acquire Wentz, trading a third-round pick in 2022 and a conditional third-round pick in 2023 to the Indianapolis Colts along with a second-round pick swap last April. Wentz counts $28.294 million against Washington's salary cap.

The decision to start Heinicke could affect the conditional pick for Indianapolis. If Wentz plays at least 70% of Washington's snaps this season, the Commanders would owe the Colts a second-round pick. Wentz has currently played 59.1% of the team's offensive plays. At Washington's current pace, if Heinicke starts one more game, the Colts would be set to get only a third-round choice.

Wentz has thrown 10 touchdown passes and six interceptions while playing in a new offensive system for the first time in his seven seasons. He has been sacked 23 times, a result of that learning curve, inconsistent pass protection and a loss in mobility due to knee and back injuries. Wentz has a 32.5 QBR, and the Commanders scored just 47 points in his past four starts.

Heinicke, who has spent parts of five seasons in this offense, has helped with his mobility as well as his penchant for connecting with top wide receiver Terry McLaurin. In six games with Wentz, McLaurin had 36 targets and 22 receptions; in four games with Heinicke, he has 44 targets and 28 catches.

"He doesn't need to play well. He just needs to play. We just need to continue to do the things we're doing. I'm not looking to pull anybody. ... This is not a competition as far as a controversy. That's the last thing on my mind. That's why we talked about doing it one game at a time."
Commanders coach Ron Rivera, on starting Taylor Heinicke over Carson Wentz

Heinicke has thrown five touchdowns and four interceptions but has been sacked only nine times in five starts. Last year, he threw 15 interceptions (to 20 touchdowns).

"Last year I was taking those shots in unneeded situations, and it turned up with interceptions and it cost us points," Heinicke said. "This year I'm honing in on trying to be a lot smarter with the ball, especially with our defense playing the way it is."

He also said Wentz has been supportive.

"It's got to be tough for him, and I get it," Heinicke said. "He did nothing wrong. It's a weird circumstance, but he's done a great job. In every meeting he's helped me out any way he can. He's in my ear when I get to the sideline. He's a great leader for this team. I don't see that faltering."