The St. Louis BattleHawks live on through their third-string quarterback, Taylor Heinicke. Sunday he led the Washington Football Team on a late drive for the game-winning field goal and a 17-15 victory at Vegas. Washington has won four in a row to move to 6-6 and into contention for a wild card playoff spot. This is a helluva story, one of the best in the NFL in 2021.

I don’t know why the Battlehawks had Heinicke behind Jordan Ta’amu and Nick Fitzgerald on the QB depth chart. I don’t know exactly why Heinicke is winning for Washington. He has above-average mobility, yes. But he’s undersized at 6-0, doesn’t have a rocket arm or glossy stats, and tends to force throws. His worst habit is his overly aggressive determination to take aim on big plays instead of settling for the short passes ceded by the defense. That makes for some frantic, hair-raising stretches of quarterback play — which is also entertaining.

According to video-breakdown passing grades done by Pro Football Focus, Heinicke ranks 23rd among 29 NFL quarterbacks that have taken at least 50 percent of the dropbacks this season. But the guys just ahead of him on the grades list include Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield.

Heinicke is rated higher than Jared Goff, Sam Darnold, Ben Roethlisberger, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson – quarterbacks that have a combined salary-cap hit of nearly $93 million this season. Heinicke, at a cap hit of $2 million, is a fine value at the QB spot.

We can say this about the guy: Heinecke’s spirit and competitiveness are off the charts. His teammates adore him. And that’s because represents what this team is all about.

As columnist Jerry Brewer wrote in Monday’s Washington Post: “It’s rare for a team to take on the characteristics of a temporary quarterback. But it’s happening with Washington. His play, good and bad, embodies this squad. Football players most admire toughness and determination, and those are the traits that define Heinicke’s underdog charm. In victory, his teammates were effusive in praising his ability to bounce back.”

Washington has a 6-5 record since Heinecke took over for injured starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, with the team winning those six games by an average of only 4.1 points.

This season Heinicke has three fourth-quarter comebacks and three game-winning drives. He’s been a captivating presence late in games.

“I love that dude,” D.C. linebacker Cole Holcomb said. “Man, Heinicke — he’s a little baller. He’s a grinder. Doesn’t matter what happens, he goes out there and slings it. If he throws a pick, he shakes it off and lets go.”

Dec 5, 2021; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) celebrates at the end of the game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe that’s the key to everything. Heinicke energizes teammates in a way that can’t be quantified. He’s relentless. You can’t demoralize him. He won’t quit. He keeps battling. They keep battling.

You could even say it’s BattleHawks-style battling.

All of this is a cliche, yes. And no, this isn’t a Kurt Warner story. (Well, at least not yet.) But Heinicke absolutely is an underdog, and it has nothing to do with him getting cut four times by three NFL teams, New England, Carolina (twice) and Houston.

When you’re on the bench in the XFL – not taking a single snap in five games – you’re definitely an underdog. When you’re on the Washington practice squad and suddenly get installed as the starter during a quarterback crisis late last season – and start a wild card NFC playoff game and play so well that you nearly knocked off Tom Brady and Tampa Bay – then you’ve become a lovable underdog.

And when you get another chance this season and keep pulling out dramatic wins to rescue Washington’s season – well, that makes you an NFL starting quarterback who should be taken seriously.

By the way: the Football Team’s four-game roll began with a 29-19 victory over Tampa Bay, with Heinicke (110.4 passer rating) outplaying Tom Brady (80.4.) Unless you’re a Brady or Buccaneer fan, how can you not love that? There’s something about Heinicke that should make almost everyone smile. He’s uplifted Washington fans that have suffered through hideous ownership and a franchise that hasn’t won a postseason game since the 2005 season.

“Heinicke, what can you say about him,” D.C. defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said. “He keeps showing why he needs to be our quarterback.”

Heinicke has completed at least 70% percent of his passes in four straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL pending the result in the Monday Night Football matchup between New England and Buffalo. Washington, with its 4-0 run, currently has the longest active winning streak in the NFC.

Heinicke is the improbable hero, starting with his college-quarterback career at Old Dominion, to his trials with the Patriots, Panthers, Texans, Battlehawks, and his stints on NFL practice squads. Washington’s team may not have a nickname, but this quarterback has given “The Football Team” an identity.

“You can feel it from the guys,” Heinicke said of the support he’s received from teammates. “If I make a mistake, they are there to pick me up. Everyone in there is resilient, everyone is a warrior. We were at a 2-6 record and we could have easily folded and the season could have gone totally different but the guys went into battle and here we are 6-6.”

This has been good for the franchise and healthy for Heinicke’s bank account. He earns $125,000 when he plays at least 60 percent of the snaps in a Washington victory. Cha-ching. The four-game winning streak has deposited $500,000 in his pocket, increasing his overall bonus to $750,000 and counting this season.

As a fan, let me say this: with Heinicke doing his thing, I haven’t missed watching a Washington game in weeks. It’s a viewing priority for me. Heck, I didn’t really know Heinicke was a BattleHawk – because he never played. But he’s a must-see football player these days.

This is a little different from Heinicke’s experience in the XFL with the BattleHawks. When the league went under and folded because of the pandemic, Heinicke didn’t know what to do. The XFL was paying for him (and all players) to live in a hotel for the season, but the complimentary hotel space ended when the XFL ended.

A despondent Heinicke stayed in that St. Louis hotel room for a couple of weeks – paying out of his own pocket – and quietly pondered his future.

“It was a bizarre, bizarre thing that happened,” he said in an interview with the Washington Times. “But you just kind of got to roll with the punches.”

But how many punches can one happy wanderer take? The XFL did not crush his love of the game. And who would have blamed Heinicke for packing it in?

When you’re 28 years old and can’t get playing time in the XFL …

In an interview with the Washington Times, Battlehawks GM-coach Jonathan Hayes pushed back on claims that the STL coaches erred in their failure to use Heinicke. And they saw what he could do; Hayes said Heinicke regularly shredded the Battlehawks’ defense in practice, and that the staff wouldn’t have hesitated to use him in games if needed.

That’s fine, but the 3-2 BattleHawks never used him in a game.

Not for one snap. The coaches utilized the other backup QB, Fitzgerald, for a few run-pass option (RPO) plays. Heinicke was a spectator with a great viewing spot, right there on the St. Louis sideline.

In Hayes’ defense, Ta’amu had the big arm and was an effective starter. And according to Hayes, Ta’amu was the most accurate quarterback in camp –  the deciding factor in Heinicke in the competition.

The demotion left Heinicke (in his words) “pissed off.”

When asked by the Washington Times if he second-guessed the decision, Hayes didn’t waver. “Hell no,” Hayes said. “As a coach, you can never live that way. Hell no.”

Um, well, OK.

Ta’amu was signed and cut — twice — by the Kansas City Chiefs. Then Ta’amu was given a 2021 training-camp shot by the Detroit Lions, and they released him in August. He’s out of professional football, at least for now.

When the Times asked Washington head coach Ron Rivera about Heinicke being relegated to backup status by the BattleHawks’ coaches, he responded with a good line.

“Oops,” Rivera said. “Coaching’s an inexact science sometimes.”

Getting cut by NFL teams is one thing. But warming the bench in the XFL? The sting really burned Heinicke, who spent time brooding in his STL hotel room.

“You’re like, ‘Damn, what did I do wrong?’ Heinicke told the Times.

But he did everything possible to help the team in practice, and served as a mentor to Ta’amu. He also did some de facto coaching. During each week of practice leading into the game,  he’d chart all of the small details stressed by Hayes and the staff on a daily basis. On the day before the game, Heinicke would stand before the team in a meeting and quiz teammates to see if they were sharp on the little details that could matter in the game.

The Battlehawk coaches and players were extremely impressed. The experience, Heinicke said, motivated him to become a coach.

That will have to wait.

This ex-BattleHawk has more battles to win.

Thanks for reading …


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