They like to say that startup leagues—the “developmental ones”—don’t work in football as far as getting talent to the NFL. Well, none of them have really ever lasted lost enough for us to make a fair evaluation on all of that, but there’s no denying the XFL did put some players in a better position to make a comeback, several of which have had a chance to contribute in the NFL since the league folded for the second time.
Looking at the quarterback position with signal-callers who played in the XFL and have found their way back into the NFL, a couple names immediately come to mind. One is P.J. Walker, who was a standout for the Houston Roughnecks and has seen action for the Carolina Panthers. The other is Taylor Heinicke (though he never recorded any stats in the league), who has impressed in the little bit that we’ve seen of him for the Washington Football Team. With Ryan Fitzpatrick on injured reserve, Heinicke is set to take the reins for the Washington Football Team for the foreseeable future.
A lot of people who hadn’t heard of Heinicke definitely developed an appreciation for him when “the quarantine quarterback,” as he was designated to be, started a playoff game last postseason in place of injured quarterback Alex Smith. The game ended in a 31-23 loss, but Heinicke impressed in a way hardly anyone could believe against a team that would go on to win it all. Heinicke looked calm under pressure and displayed a lot of athleticism in that outing, completing 26-of-44 passes for 304 yards with two total touchdowns (one on the ground), with 46 total rushing yards and one interception.
Though they ultimately did fall short, it’s hard to forget that moment when his teammates swarmed around him, pointing at the name on the back of his jersey, as if to remind us all that Heinicke will be back and that he is a name to keep in our minds.
Make no bones about it, Heinicke has absolutely busted his tail to be here and it’s an unlikely happening that he’s made it to this point—the odds have been stacked against him more than most.
Heinicke has never impressed much with his arm talent or physical assets—he doesn’t have a cannon and he’s not as big as a lot of other NFL quarterbacks, standing at 6-foot-1 and weighing in at 210 pounds. He didn’t garner a ton of attention in college school football either, playing out that part of his career in the FCS at Old Dominion. Then, he got a rude awakening early on in his NFL career after he went undrafted, signed by the Minnesota Vikings.
He’s started just two games in his NFL career, the last regular-season start for him being for the Carolina Panthers—his fourth NFL team. It was a rude awakening for him as he threw three interceptions in that 2018 appearance, but Heinicke himself has noted that he feels he’s matured and grown extensively as a player since those days. Coaches and players around him, like wide receiver Terry McLaurin, have spoken to what he brings to the table.
"One of the things Taylor really uses is his anticipation," McLaurin told reporters. "He's really smart and it's like he knows where he's going pre-snap and confirms it post-snap. If it's not there, he creates a scramble-drill situation and then anybody is liable to get the ball."
There are two possibilities for the way Heinicke will be viewed: a guy who flashed for a second after weaseling his way back into the league, or one hell of an underdog story that will inspire players for years to come. Time will tell exactly who Heinicke is as a starting quarterback at the NFL, but there’s no question he’s got the full support of those around him. Regardless of your take on his pure ability, it’s hard not to root for him.