Heinicke, starting for the injured Alex Smith, made plays with his arm and legs -- just not enough of them -- in Washington's 31-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round of the playoffs on Saturday. Heinicke didn't get the win, but he did complete 26 of 44 passes for 306 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He ran for a score, as well.
And a player who was out of the league for nearly two years did prove a point.
"I deserve to be in this league a little longer," said Heinicke, a pending free agent. "I've been on the other side not playing and it's not fun, not as fun as this."
In the process, Heinicke also picked up support from his teammates -- and even a star player on another team. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is represented by the same agency as Heinicke, tweeted his approval of his performance.
After the game, Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin talked to Heinicke as they exited the field. McLaurin just wanted to let Heinicke know how much he appreciated him.
"I'll take No. 4 on my team any day of the week, twice on Sunday," McLaurin said. "I hope we're teammates in the future.
"That dude plays with no fear. He's going to give his players a chance to make plays. He extends plays, he runs, he takes hits. He does everything you ask a quarterback to do in this league.
"He gave us a chance."
Heinicke did not know he was going to start until coach Ron Rivera told him Friday afternoon. However, Washington kept its decision quiet until several hours before the game. Smith has been bothered by a strained right calf, and with Tampa Bay known for its defensive pressure, his inability to escape would be too costly.
"We didn't want to put him in a bad situation," Rivera said.
The coach later said, "We were really fired up about giving [Heinicke] that opportunity."
Heinicke ran six times for 46 yards and scored on an 8-yard run late in the third quarter. On that play, his first three options were covered and the pocket was being pinched. He somehow ducked under pressure and slipped through an opening. He took off for the left sideline and dove into the end zone, with the ball hitting the pylon. In the process, he suffered an AC joint separation in his left shoulder.
"I wanted to get that touchdown," he said.
On the ensuing series, Heinicke was hit hard twice and headed to the sideline in obvious pain. He then jogged to the locker room but returned without missing a series.
"His grit, his willingness to fight, willingness to compete," Washington corner Kendall Fuller said when asked what he saw in Heinicke. "It definitely motivated the whole team."
When Washington called in December, Heinicke was taking four math courses at Old Dominion University. It was finals week; he received permission to take two of the finals after the season.
Washington liked that Heinicke knew offensive coordinator Scott Turner's system, having played in the same one for two years with the Minnesota Vikings and for one with Carolina Panthers. That's when Heinicke got his only start prior to Saturday. He exited that game with an elbow injury that later required surgery. Durability has been a question for the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Heinicke.
He was released by Carolina in the final preseason cuts in August 2019 and spent the year out of football. He eventually signed with the St. Louis BattleHawks of the XFL but did not play in any of their five games. The end appeared near for the 2015 undrafted free agent.
But he impressed his Washington teammates.
"The way he carries himself, he's a true pro," Washington tackle Morgan Moses said. "I can't tell you why he was on the street before we picked him up. He has every quality of a player you want. I'm just glad we got him. No words to explain the performance that he had today. He stepped up on a big-time stage, and I commend him for that."
Moses had watched Heinicke play some in college.
"The guy's an awesome player," Moses said. "He has that 'it' factor, and you can't teach that."
That it factor paid off on the series after Heinicke returned from his injury. He led a 75-yard touchdown drive, capped by a pretty 11-yard pass to Steven Sims Jr., leading him to the corner of the end zone.
"It was gutsy," Rivera said. "The young man earned an opportunity."
He'll now have to wait a while to see if, or when, the next one arises.
"Everything that happened in the past month and a half, to go out there and do that, I'm proud of myself, happy the coaches believed in me and gave me the opportunity," Heinicke said. "I hope I can do it next year."