Stretched out and in the air, Heinicke collided with Buccaneer’s star linebacker Lavonte David. He landed on his left shoulder saying he heard “a click or a crack” but showed up to celebrate and toss both arms to the sky in the signal for a touchdown for keeping his balance and making it to reach the ball to the neon orange pylon. The result brought the Washington Football team as close as possible to the star-studded, heavily favored Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lost 31-23 towards the end of the season at FedEx Field on Saturday night.

And yet, on a team with chronic quarterback instability, in a position group where the rise and fall of any competitor in a soap opera this season would have been overdramatic, Heinicke managed to deliver what is perhaps the most impressive performance of all. The 27-year-old, who started giving up on his NFL dream of returning to college this fall, found himself standing up for Alex Smith, a stand-alone Hallmark comeback story, and electrifying a fan base six weeks later. a national audience and a group of teammates who never expected this. He played the fourth quarter with a severed AC joint in his left shoulder, an injury that can cause players to miss months.

“I didn’t feel good after that,” he said. “In the next series, I was hit, landed on the floor a couple of times, and decided we should go [in the locker room]. … But [I] got out of there and gutted it. “

Perhaps the most impressive part of Heinicke’s performance was that he defied a note on the turn. It wasn’t good for a fourth stringer. He wasn’t good for an emergency option. He had a good time, doing 26 of 44 passes for 306 yards, one touchdown, an interception that wasn’t his fault, and six rushes for 46 yards. He forced some of the league’s best quarterbacks past and present, from Joe Theismann to Patrick Mahomes, to praise him on social media. He raised the question of what role he could play next season.

“Gutsy,” said Rivera of the performance. “It really was. He created an opportunity and we’ll see what happens.”

The circumstances of Heinicke’s success seemed unlikely this week as well. He hadn’t spoken to many teammates because as the quarantine quarterback it was his job to stay away from everyone. He had never thrown a pass at star receiver Terry McLaurin until training on Wednesday. He’d never shown the team that he could play like this on a big stage because he’d succeeded in his only appearance before that late in the fourth quarter against a Carolina Panthers soft defense.

But Heinicke proved on Saturday that he is real. He showed an uncanny understanding of the offense and displayed the mobility that Buccaneer’s coach Bruce Arians feared. Arians told reporters after the game that he wished Smith had started. Heinicke’s third drive was a march of 10 games and 75 yards to a touchdown that put Washington on the scoreboard.

In the second half, after his touchdown run, Heinicke returned from the locker room with tape on his left shoulder. After the subsequent drive failed, Heinicke constructed an 11-player, 75-yard drive that was limited by a neat touchdown throw to receiver Steven Sims in the far corner of the end zone.

“I can’t tell you why he was on the street before we picked him up,” said Morgan Moses. “He has every quality of a football player that one could wish for. … He has stepped on a big stage and I recommend him for it. “

After it was over, after Heinicke had emerged from the midfield crowd, he stomped back into the locker room when he felt a hand on the back of his jersey. He turned to McLaurin.

“I told him I appreciate him for putting it on the field for us,” said the recipient. “He has a lion heart. I told him I would add him to my team every day of the week. … He is a man of few words, but his actions speak volumes. “

During his post-game press conference, Heinicke giggled at the absurdity of his trip. He grimaced at the mention of his shoulder, which he said doesn’t need surgery, it “hurts like hell”. He joked about his professors at Old Dominion who he owed two final exams. But he got serious when asked what he hoped to prove with this feat.

“Hopefully I deserve to be in this league a little longer,” he said. “I was on the other side, didn’t play, and was in the real world. This is not fun. It’s not that fun. “

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