Commanders QB Taylor Heinicke looks back on ‘crazy ride’ that started with Vikings

After quarterback Taylor Heinicke joined the Vikings in 2015 as an undrafted free agent out of Old Dominion, even he didn’t think he had much of a chance to stick in the NFL. Then Shaun Hill took him under his wing.

Hill was then a backup quarterback for Minnesota, and wanted to convince Heinicke he had what it took.

“(Offensive coordinator) Norv (Turner) was yelling at me, and I didn’t think I was good enough to be in this league,” Heinicke said Thursday. “And Shaun was like, ‘Hey, man, you’re the rookie. Coaches usually let all their frustration out on rookies.’ But he’s like, ‘You’re playing well, just keep doing what you’re doing.’ So, if it wasn’t for Shaun Hill, I don’t think I’d be here today.”

Heinicke, 29, is now the starting quarterback for the Washington Commanders, who play host to Minnesota on Sunday at FedEx Field.

“Quite honestly, if someone told me when I was coming out of college that you would be in your eighth year and have started (18) games in the league, I would have thought you were crazy,’’ said Heinicke, undersized at 6-foot-1. “I’m very thankful. … It’s been a crazy ride. It’s been a roller coaster.”

Heinicke was set back in his second Vikings season when he suffered a severed tendon above his left ankle in July 2016 in what he called “a freak accident.” After being released by the Vikings before the 2017 season, he had abbreviated stints with three NFL teams and played in the XFL. By 2020, he was considering quitting football.

Heinicke did show enough as a rookie to be kept on Minnesota’s roster as the third-stringer throughout 2015, although he never was active for a game. And then came the accident. He had said he was locked out of his residence, and while trying to get in, put his foot through a glass door. That happened a month before then-starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a season-ending knee injury, spurring the Vikings to trade for Sam Bradford.

“That was one of the dumbest mistakes I’ve ever made,’’ said Heinicke, who was on the non-football injury list for the first half of 2016 and didn’t get into a game the rest of the season after being activated. “It was definitely a setback. I feel like maybe if that didn’t happen, and then Teddy blows out his knee, I might have got a chance that year. They maybe would not have traded for Sam Bradford.”

After being let go by Minnesota, Heinicke spent time with New England, Houston and Carolina. He played in one regular-season game with the Texans and six with the Panthers. By 2020, he with the St. Louis BattleHawks of the XFL, but the league suspended operations when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“I remember calling Scott Turner and asking him if there were any coaching spots open here in Washington,’’ Heinicke said. Turner, son of Norv Turner, is the Commanders’ offensive coordinator and was Minnesota’s quarterbacks coach from 2014-16. “And he told me, ‘Don’t give up just yet. You never know with injuries and also COVID, stuff happens.’ ”

Heinicke returned to Old Dominion in Norfolk, Va., to work on completing his degree, but Washington signed him to the practice squad late in the 2020 season. Because of injuries, he started a playoff game and passed for 306 yards in a 31-23 loss to eventual Super Bowl winner Tampa Bay.

That led to Heinicke starting 15 games in 2021. He was replaced when the Commanders acquired Carson Wentz before this season, but Wentz suffered a finger injury on Oct. 13, and Heinicke has started the past two games. He led the Commanders (4-4) to comeback wins of 23-21 over Green Bay and 17-16 over Indianapolis to extend Washington’s winning streak to three games.

“Taylor has got everybody excited now,” said former Washington star quarterback Joe Theismann. “He’s basically captured the fascination of the fans.”

In his two starts, Heinicke has thrown for 480 yards and three touchdowns and run for one, exciting fans and teammates with his swashbuckling style.

“A lot of (teammates), they kind of rally around that when you see kind of an undersized quarterback (who is) kind of leaving his body on the line,” Heinicke said.

Vikings star wide receiver Adam Thielen, who keeps in touch with Heinicke, has been proud to see what he has done. Thielen, in his 10th Minnesota season, also overcame odds after being undrafted.

“He actually kind of reminded me of myself as a young player,” Thielen said.

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