ATLANTA – In the locker room after a thrilling victory, Washington football quarterback Taylor Heinicke grabbed his phone. He typed a text to Earl Williams, the skills trainer who had helped convince him not to retire in the summer of 2020, who had helped him train him all fall until ‘Washington give him the call he thought would never come.
Williams, his wife Lori and others had driven from near Buford, Ga. To see one of the NFL’s most unlikely stories – one known simply as “Taylor” or “T” to them. Heinicke had led his second last-second comeback in three weeks, this one against his hometown Falcons.
“Hey man, stick around,” Heinicke wrote to Williams. “I have a gift for you.”
The victory was important for Heinicke. Despite his success in Georgia as a child – Collins Hill High set records, led the Screaming Eagles to the Class 5A semifinals, and was named one of the state’s top players as a senior – his previous game against the Falcons seemed like the end of his career. In December 2018, on his first NFL start, the then-Carolina Panthers quarterback threw three interceptions and partially tore his triceps in a loss to the Falcons.
This time, Heinicke came on a high. He wasn’t just a starter, but a hero: A few fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium wore t-shirts commemorating his iconic pylon dive in the 2020 playoffs. His sister Lauren, who was shortly pregnant after he stopped crashing on his couch last fall, introduced him to several-week-old Jack. Heinicke had “60 to 70” other supporters in the stands, he said, including high school students he coached when he was not in the league.
“It was pretty emotional there for a little while,” said Heinicke. “It means a lot to me.”
Outside the stadium, Williams started walking towards the Washington team buses in a back parking lot. He met Jake Banta, a close friend of Heinicke’s, and they rehashed a few shots. One of Williams’ favorites was Heinicke’s second touchdown against Terry McLaurin to draw Washington within two. He thought the pass, which was risky, showed Heinicke’s intoxication.
“You know why he did that, don’t you?” Williams said.
“It looked like his arm had been hit,” Banta said.
“He threw the ball because it was [man-to-man] cover, ”Williams replied. “The defender’s back was for him, so he was smart about it because [McLaurin] was coming back to the ball … “
“And the guy didn’t even see it,” Banta finished.
After the Washington defense stuffed Atlanta, Heinicke recovered the ball with 1:47 to go. The sequel did not surprise Williams or Banta. Heinicke couldn’t connect with McLaurin and instead found reserve receiver DeAndre Carter for 24 yards, sub man Adam Humphries for 19 and running back JD McKissic for four. In his last snapshot, Heinicke worked with McKissic, who was on his fifth reading, and checked. The running back took 30 yards for the go-ahead score.
The balance late in the game was familiar to Williams. He had seen the 28-year-old win shootouts like this for years, especially at Old Dominion University, and he thought it showed his intelligence and mobility. There were a few shots that Williams didn’t like, but he thought McKissic’s check-down was a good example of Heinicke winning with his header. With the game in play and with tight cover on his primary target, Heinicke zoomed in on his progressions to keep his throwing windows open for longer. Williams insisted that “these are the kinds of games that make franchise quarterbacks.”
“He’s grown a bit more today, and if he continues like this, it’s going to be a problem,” he added. “I don’t care who he plays against. … It’s going to be a problem.
Near the bus parking lot, Williams and Banta approached a fence. A security guard rushed over and told them that they were not allowed to stay there. But Heinicke told Williams to stay for his present, so they waited across the street. Friends of other players rode their bikes until the stadium sent a dozen police to the sidewalk.
Inside, at a press conference, Heinicke praised his offensive line, McKissic and McLaurin. He explained that the touchdown at McKissic came on a “flood concept,” where all the other receivers are gone, and said he made better decisions this week than the week before in a resounding loss. in Buffalo. Heinicke handled the game the way coach Ron Rivera wanted with controls and had no turnovers.
“You just have to be smart with it,” he said. “I think today we did.”
Afterwards, on his way to the bus, Heinicke approached the fence. Stadium security told Williams he couldn’t, so Heinicke handed the gift to a member of the team’s staff, who handed it over to a security guard, who walked out of the pitch. Williams held up the crumpled white jersey with a small patch of dirt on the front.
“Thank you!” Williams screamed, and as the buses pulled back he figured Heinicke’s first NFL game in Georgia as a starting quarterback wouldn’t be his last.