Taylor Heinicke knew he was down to his last shot.
It just so happened that his last shot to make it as an NFL quarterback came with the 7-9 Washington Football Team in the playoffs, going head to head against the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady.
Washington ultimately fell a touchdown short, but Heinicke was extraordinary, passing for 306 yards, one touchdown and one interception, while rushing for an additional 46 yards and a touchdown, against one of the best defenses in the league. In just his second career start.
A month ago he was studying for finals towards his advanced mathematics degree at Old Dominion University. And then he got the call to join Washington as its emergency quarantine quarterback — a long shot, but still a shot.
"You go back and look at a lot of things and you kind of learn stuff from yourself from the past, and you don't want those things to happen again," Heinicke told The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan. "I learned a lot after the whole XFL thing kind of ended and I was at home trying to figure out what to do, what my next plan was."
After going undrafted in 2015, Heinicke spent his first two NFL seasons in Minnesota, where he linked up with a young quarterbacks coach named Scott Turner (who's now Washington's offensive coordinator). He later kicked around the league with three other teams, including Ron Rivera's Panthers in 2018.
To demonstrate how far out of the league he'd fallen, at the start of 2020 he was in the XFL, as a backup who never so much as saw the field for the St. Louis BattleHawks. It was a long offseason for Heinicke. Like every sports league across the world, the XFL shut down in March due to the global pandemic. Only, it wouldn't re-open like the others. The XFL folded in April, leaving Heinicke plenty of time to think about his life.
"While I was doing that, there was still a glimmer of hope in the back of my mind that there still might be a chance," Heinicke said. "I kept working hard and just kept telling myself, 'Just prepare like if you do get this shot, it's gonna be the last shot you get.'
"I was sick to my stomach in how football ended for me in Carolina with a torn tricep, a loss, and then going to the XFL, not really getting a starting job and playing. I didn't want football to end for me that way. So I just trained just for the sheer fact if I did get an opportunity, I wanted to make the best of it."
"Did you look at this as something to be nervous about," Junkies host Eric Bickel asked. "Or did you look at it like, man, I've got nothing to lose. I'm just gonna go out there and ball and just do my thing?"
"Yeah. Like you just said. That kind of was my mentality and it's kind of been my mentality since I got up here, even on practice squad," Heinicke said. "I was like, you know what? I'm coming every day to prepare like I'm starting, just in case. The NFL's a crazy business. Injuries happen. With all this COVID stuff going on, you just never know. So when I went out to practice and everything, I was just preparing like I was starting."
"But this past week, it was the same as any other week," he continued. "It was kind of the same deal where Alex [Smith] wasn't really getting much reps, he was letting his leg rest. But then once Friday morning came around and we had that walk-through, and he still didn't get much reps throughout the week, Ron Rivera came up to me and told me I was starting.
"Day before the game and you go up against Tom Brady. But I was preparing all week like I was starting, so I wasn't surprised, I wasn't nervous. I felt like I was ready to go."
Heinicke briefly left for the locker room late in the game after clutching his arm in pain. He returned for the next drive but was clearly gutting through something. He tells The Sports Junkies he suffered an AC joint separation in his shoulder. "It hurts like hell," he said. "But that's the good hurt."
Heinicke performed so brilliantly, it's actually taken the sting out of a playoff loss for many Washington fans. What would normally be a somber period — the finality to a season falling short of the Super Bowl — many fans have instead turned their focus toward making sure Heinicke gets a shot on this roster next season.
"I think my contract is up in February, I believe, and then free agency starts in March," Heinicke said. "But yeah, I am a restricted free agent. Whatever Washington wants to do, that's their choice. I want to be here. I love it here. Love Ron. I love Scott. Love the guys in this locker room.
"And again, it's nice being familiar with these coaches and with the offense, and feeling comfortable with all the guys. It's something that you don't really find in a lot of places. So I would love to be back here. That would be definitely my first choice. But again, you never know."
As for that advanced mathematics degree he's working on, Heinicke says, "I have no idea what I want to do with it."