(Image Credit Brad Mills/ USA TODAY Sports)
Written By: Adam Slivon
A small, unheralded backup quarterback who claims the starting role early in the season over a free-agent signing. This statement reflects not only Taylor Heinicke’s claim to the starting job over Ryan Fitzpatrick after week one this season but is similar to Russell Wilson beating out Matt Flynn in 2012.
Nearly 10 years later, the parallels between Wilson and Heinicke are striking. Both are small quarterbacks on paper, Wilson a “generous” 5-11 and Heinicke standing barely over six feet. Both have had veteran coaches leading their teams, with Pete Carroll in Seattle and Ron Rivera recently taking over the reins in Washington after a long run with the Carolina Panthers. The biggest parallel between the two; however, are strong defenses both have been backed by early in their careers. If you have been a football fan over the past ten years, I am sure you have heard the historic “Legion of Boom” Seattle defense mainly featuring Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Brandon Browner in the secondary along with linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, among others. That defense could be its own story, but I think this 2016 article covers their dominance sufficiently. In a few years, perhaps Washington may have their own ESPN article illustrating their defensive prowess.
Connecting back to Wilson and Heinicke, 2012 was unofficially the first-year Seattle’s defense rose to new heights, and in 2013 Wilson’s play along with their defense led to a Super Bowl win over the Denver Broncos. If Heinicke continues to hold the starting quarterback gig after Fitzpatrick comes back in a few weeks, his defense is nothing to scoff at and could guide them to playoff success (yes, Washington could be a playoff contender). Washington in 2020 ranked second in yards allowed (Pro Football Reference), third in DVOA (Football Outsiders), fourth in points against (PFR), and features their young defensive line along with the additions of William Jackson and Jamin Davis through free agency and the draft, respectively. That defensive line, coincidentally featuring four main members, was ranked second by Pro Football Focus prior to the season behind the Pittsburgh Steelers, with PFF commenting on the impact of Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, Montez Sweat, and Chase Young.
Now, defenses can be historically dominant, but consistent and clutch quarterback play often tips the scale in the playoffs. How do Wilson and Heinicke relate to that?
Well, it begins by having heart…
Reflecting on Wilson, growing up in Wisconsin I had the chance to follow him in 2011 after his transfer from NC State (and after being selected by the Colorado Rockies in 2010). Wilson immediately led Wisconsin to national relevance, bringing them all the way to the Rose Bowl game. While they lost that game, Wilson moved into the NFL conversation throughout the season, passing for 33 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions, while adding 6 touchdowns on the ground. With these numbers, why was he the SIXTH quarterback taken in the 2012 NFL draft? Height. Wilson was overlooked by scouts coming into the league, with Jon Gruden offering these in-depth comments over a conference call with Buffalo News in April 2012:
"The only issue with Russell Wilson is his height," Gruden said of the 5-foot-11 quarterback. "That might be the reason he's not picked in the first couple rounds."
"He's got tremendous mobility. I've got him at 4.50 [seconds] in the 40 [yard dash]. He's mastered two different offensive systems. This is a tremendous kid. His intangibles are off the charts."
"We all know what a great athlete he is," Gruden said. "The only issue is his height. We used Drew Brees as the classic example with him. If you just look at one inch, or an inch and a half, that's the height difference with Drew Brees. [Wilson's] got a lot of questions to answer. There are not a lot of quarterbacks who are under 6 feet who are playing in the NFL today or who have played the game, period.
Looking back at Gruden’s comments nearly ten years later, it would turn out that Wilson has become the new precedent for small quarterbacks. Wilson overcame criticisms entering the league and has arguably reached hall of fame candidacy when he retires someday. It would not be fair to Taylor Heinicke to give him such lofty expectations, but I am sure that even becoming a starting quarterback has to feel like just as much of an honor.
“I was like, ‘Dang, who is that little guy?’”
The quote above from Chase Young, courtesy of The Athletic, is his initial reaction to seeing Heinicke when he joined the team late last season, before his breakthrough game against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. To fully understand “that little guy”, let us rewind back to college.
Taylor Heinicke attended Old Dominion from 2011 to 2014, and during this time he would move up various leaderboards, including punting. Yes, Punting. In 2011 Heinicke would average 42.5 yards per punt, while also throwing 25 touchdowns to 1 interception. Impressive, right? While Wilson was in his final year at Wisconsin in 2011, Heinicke was just beginning his own collegiate career. Looking over Old Dominion’s football statistical archives, it is not just his increasing punt duty that caught my eye (four in 2011, eleven in 2012, thirteen in 2013, fourteen in 2014). To illustrate his dominance in college, in a 2012 contest against New Hampshire, Heinicke set an FCS record with 791 total yards, including an FCS record of 730 passing yards in a 64-61 win. His college numbers were off the charts. In just four years, he finished his days at Old Dominion with 14,959 passing yards and 154 touchdowns!
Despite all these accomplishments, he went undrafted and his battle would begin.
Table Comparing Wilson’s Combine vs. Heinicke’s Pro Day, Numbers Provided by Draftscout.com
Height: 5-10 5/8
Height: 6-0 1/4
Weight: 204 lb
Weight: 214 lb
40 Yard Dash: 4.55 Seconds
40 Yard Dash: 4.62 Seconds
20 Yard Shuttle: 4.09 Seconds
20 Yard Shuttle: 4.21 Seconds
Three-Cone Drill: 6.97 Seconds
Three-Cone Drill: 6.96 Seconds
Vertical Jump: 34 In
Vertical Jump: 35 In
Broad Jump: 9 Ft 10 In
Broad Jump: 10 Ft 3 In
Before reaching Washington, Heinicke would spend time on four NFL teams (Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers) and have a short-lived stint with the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL. During this time, he had a grand total of 58 pass attempts and one touchdown pass. Heinicke joined Washington’s practice squad on December 2nd, 2020 as their “quarantine quarterback”, according to the team’s VP of player personnel at the time. Later in the month, he replaced Dwayne Haskins as the starting quarterback, completing 12 of 19 passes against one of his former teams, the Carolina Panthers. With Haskins being released the following day and Alex Smith ruled out to injury, it set the stage for Heinicke against the Buccaneers in the NFC Wild Card game.
Heinicke played his heart out against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, completing 26 of 44 passes for 306 yards, and throwing and rushing for a touchdown in a 31-23 loss. Competing and hanging with the guy people only consider to be the BEST football player in league history?! No big deal. Heinicke displayed in this contest that he belongs in this league as more than an emergency quarterback (or punter). It led to Washington signing him to a 2 year, $4.75 million extension this past offseason, asserting their confidence in him as an NFL quarterback.
What a journey…
To be a small quarterback in the NFL, it takes heart and the right circumstances to line up. For both Russell Wilson and Taylor Heinicke, it meant overcoming free-agent competition through preseason play and injury. But more than that, it meant overcoming leaguewide doubts from scouts, coaches, and general managers who drool building their teams around prototypically sized quarterbacks, recent examples being Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Trevor Lawrence, to name a few. These doubts led to Wilson incredibly falling to the third round and Heinicke becoming an undrafted journeyman bouncing from team to team. While Wilson has already cemented his status as one of the league’s best, Heinicke’s story as a starting quarterback is just starting. At the time of this writing, he has two starts for Washington this season. His first was a 30-29 win over the New York Giants, his first win as a starting quarterback. This was followed by a learning experience against the Buffalo Bills in which he threw two interceptions in a 43-21 loss. The next few weeks are sure to be filled with various ups and downs as he adjusts while Fitzpatrick recovers, but having an experienced head coach as well as one of the top defenses will help.
Both Wilson and Heinicke share these similarities and offer an interesting parallel. What Heinicke accomplishes is yet to be determined, but just making it this far deserves recognition. The beginning of his career compares to Wilson’s; however, through his play this season, the comparison may run even deeper.