Chase Young still didn’t get Tom Brady. But he got something like that almost led to an even better result: an unexpected performance by a teammate named Taylor Heinicke, who started the year hired by a football league that no longer exists.
Saturday night’s Wild Card game between Bux and Washington was Brady’s playoff debut for a team other than the Patriots. Who would have thought that the star of the show would instead be Heinike, who has played fewer games in the NFL (eight) than the number of spelling mistakes in his last name registered on Twitter during the game? Heineke entered his unlikely start in the playoffs with 77 attempts to pass the NFL in his name. By comparison, Brady has almost as many touchdowns in the playoffs (75).
The Lumps advanced to the division round with a 31-23 victory over Washington. Young, the alleged defensive rookie of the year, failed to bring down Brady, who was fired three times from the Washington front, but enjoyed a clean pocket for most of the night. However, despite the fact that the 7-9 football team was the necessary representative of the playoffs of the low NFC East and veteran Alex Smith was expelled with a bodily injury, this race came to the final possession of Washington. The reason was Taylor Heinicke.
In the first half, Heineke kept things interesting. After Bucs jumped 9-0, he responded by leading a 75-yard TD. He hit a 24-yard pass, then an 18-yard pass, then converted a third and eight under pressure from Ndamukong Suh. Aside from Tony Dungi’s enthusiasm at the NBC booth, his early spark seemed inevitable to fade, as is so often the case with young QB replacements in the lineup.
Not so! It was his 13-yard fight in seconds and 11 in the third quarter, when the admiring audience suddenly saw, “Heineke is fast!” (I literally wrote that in my notes; you can see why they pay me to write about sports.) But the best is yet to come. Washington had a third and five in the eight-yard line of Tampa Bay, which began with the elimination of Heineke, then retreated even further, to the 20-yard line. It certainly wouldn’t end well. But Heinicke … just kept moving. He slipped out of the pile of players, ran to the left, and sprinted to the marker for the first time. On the four-yard line, he planted with his left foot and fired into the air. The 6 ‘1 “QB covered the remaining 12 feet, suspended over the grass, extending the football to knock down the pylon. Its eight-yard paved run covered three times as much ground.
Young had rushed off the bench to watch the game on goal, and that was when he landed on QB, fiercely pointing the name on the back of his shirt at the television cameras. You know his name, he said … and maybe even write it next time.
Washington missed the next transformation by two points, but it didn’t matter: The result was 18-16. During an NBC broadcast, side reporter Catherine Tappen shared an anecdote about how during Heineke’s 16-day stay with the New England training team in 2017, he entered the QB boardroom in [insert impressive-sounding early-morning hour here] and found Brady, who had no idea who the young QB was. Now, amazingly, Heineke’s team lost to Tom Brady by only two points. Everything was possible!
The fun seemed to be over when, in the early fourth quarter, Heinicke retired to the locker room, shivering in pain as the even greener Washington QB, rookie Stephen Montez, began to warm up. Heineke parted his left shoulder in the touchdown dive, but still managed to score for Lamar Jackson. He returned to the field with a tight shoulder and already 12 points deficit to close. Minutes later, Heineke found Stephen Sims in a corner, placing the ball where his receiver could pin it in front of the defender and still with two feet in bounds. Did QB, who signed with the team on December 8, just do that? Werklempt Brady, who was shouting “incompletely!” From Bucs’s sideline, certainly hoped he hadn’t. But the play survived a review and the touchdown remained.
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The fact that this game boils down to Heineke’s final possession – after a goal on the Bucks, Washington returned the ball within three minutes, eight points behind – will certainly be a matter of research for the Bucks, whose seasonal aspirations will require three more wins against clubs that are much more proven than the football team. But for us, the spectators, it was a pleasure. This game looked like it was aimed at a snowman. Young and the Washington Front against Brady seemed to be the only potential intrigue. But then came Heinicke, who raised the standards for backup QB play, let alone fourth stringers.
Probably something can be taken here about the shortcomings in the way the NFL evaluates and develops young QBs, that someone capable of a delightful performance like this started the year as an XFL backup in St. Louis. Louis BattleHawks. There is certainly a learning moment that will be used by coaches for years to make the most of your opportunity whenever it comes. There is also great potential for specialty in mathematics, studied equations with partial differentials to be next Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard.
The failure of the fourth and 21 with two minutes of play ended the night of Heineke and the season of Washington, but this performance ensures that his opportunity in the NFL will continue. And millions of viewers now can’t wait for the next time we see Heinicke’s play, a mood that, like so many things in our world, wouldn’t have made any sense a year ago.