Chase Young didn’t get Tom Brady after all. But, he did get something that almost resulted in an even better outcome: an unexpected performance from a teammate named Taylor Heinicke, who began the year employed by a football league that no longer exists.
Saturday night’s wild-card game between the Bucs and Washington was Brady’s playoff debut for a team other than the Patriots. Whoever would have thought that the star of the show would instead be Heinicke, who has played in fewer NFL games (eight) than the number of misspellings of his last name logged on Twitter during the game? Heinicke came into his unlikely playoff start with 77 NFL pass attempts to his name. Brady, by way of comparison, has almost that many playoff passing touchdowns (75).
The Bucs advanced to the divisional round with a 31–23 win against Washington. Young, the presumptive defensive rookie of the year, did not get to bring down Brady, who was sacked three times by Washington’s front but enjoyed a clean pocket for most of the night. However, despite the fact that the 7–9 Football Team was the requisite playoff representative of the lowly NFC East, and veteran Alex Smith’s being ruled out with a calf injury, this contest came down to Washington’s final possession. The reason was Taylor Heinicke.
In the first half, Heinicke kept things interesting. After the Bucs jumped out to a 9–0 lead, he responded by leading a 75-yard TD drive. He hit a 24-yard pass, then an 18-yarder, then he converted a third-and-eight under pressure from Ndamukong Suh. Tony Dungy’s enthusiasm in the NBC booth aside, it seemed inevitable his early spark would fade, as happens so often with young replacement QBs inserted into the line-up.
Not so! It was on his 13-yard scramble on a second-and-11 in the third quarter when the delighted viewing public suddenly realized, “Heinicke is fast!” (That’s literally what I wrote down in my notes; you can see why I get paid to write about sports.) But the best was yet to come. Washington had a third-and-five at the Tampa Bay eight-yard-line, which began with Heinicke dropping, then retreating even farther back, as far as the 20-yard line. Surely this was not going to end well. But Heinicke … just kept moving. He slipped out from among the cluster of players, ran to his left, and sprinted toward the first-down marker. At the four-yard line, he planted with his left foot and launched himself airborne. The 6' 1" QB covered the remaining 12 feet suspended above the turf, extending the football to knock over the pylon. His eight-yard touchdown run covered about three times as much ground.
Young had raced off the bench to watch the goal-line plays up close and this was when he descended upon his QB, fervently pointing at the name on the back of his jersey to the TV cameras. Know his name, he was saying … and maybe even spell it right next time.
Washington missed the subsequent two-point conversion, but no matter: The score was 18–16. During the NBC broadcast, sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen shared an anecdote about how during Heinicke’s 16-day stint on the New England practice squad in 2017, he’d entered the QB meeting room at [insert impressive-sounding early-morning hour here] and discovered Brady, who had no idea who the young QB was. Now, improbably, Heinicke’s team trailed Tom Brady’s by just two points. Anything was possible!
The fun seemed like it might be over when, early in the fourth quarter, Heinicke retreated into the locker room, wincing in pain, as an even greener Washington QB—rookie Steven Montez—began warming up. Heinicke separated his left shoulder on that touchdown dive, but he still managed his Lamar Jackson-esque moment. He returned to the field with the shoulder taped up and a now 12-point deficit to close. Minutes later, Heinicke found Steven Sims on a corner route, placing the ball where his receiver could secure it in front of the defender and still with two feet in bounds. Did a QB who signed with the team on Dec. 8 really just do that? A verklempt Brady, who was screaming “incomplete!” from the Bucs’ sideline, certainly hoped he had not. But the play survived a review and the touchdown stood.
The fact that this game came down to Heinicke’s final possession—after a Bucs field goal, Washington got the ball back inside of three minutes, trailing by eight points—will certainly be a matter of study for the Bucs, whose season aspirations would require three more wins, against clubs that are all far more proven than the Football Team. But for us, the viewers, this was a treat. This game looked as if it was headed to be a snoozer. Young and the Washington front vs. Brady seemed to be the only potential intrigue. But then emerged Heinicke, who raised the standards for backup QB play, let alone fourth-stringers.
There’s probably a takeaway to be had here about the flaws in how the NFL evaluates and develops young QBs, that someone capable of a delightful performance like this one began the year as a backup on the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks. There is certainly a teaching point that will be used by coaches for years to come about making the most of your opportunity, whenever it comes. There is also great potential for the math major who studied partial differential equations to be the next Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard.
An incompletion on fourth-and-21 with two minutes to play ended Heinicke’s night, and Washington’s season, but this performance ensured his NFL opportunity will continue. And millions of viewers now cannot wait for the next time we’ll get to see Heinicke play, a sentiment that, like so many things in our world, would have made absolutely no sense one year ago.