“Whenever I have time off, it’s something therapeutic for me to do to just keep my brain focused on something [other than] football,” Heinicke said.
Entering last season, Heinicke was Washington’s backup quarterback, but he ended up starting 16 games in the wake of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s career-ending injury. This summer, he’s back in that second-string role after the Commanders traded for Carson Wentz, but he used the offseason to work on himself physically and mentally — to focus on those little details that can be overlooked in a long season and have a big impact.
He turned to Legos after watching a close friend in Colorado build a set. And he altered his training regimen to close any holes that had been poked into his game. Often described as a scrappy and gritty quarterback, Heinicke has also been knocked for his arm strength. The Commanders’ scheme calls for stretching the field vertically, and often Heinicke struggled to get enough air under the ball to hit his receiver.
So this offseason, he went to Adam Dedeaux, a quarterbacks coach in Los Angeles who used to be a baseball player and now works with many of the top signal-callers around the league, including Carson Wentz.
“My biggest thing was just trying to work my footwork and then have more velocity on the ball,” Heinicke said. “So I’ve been working on the stuff that [Dedeaux has] been teaching me pre-practice and stuff like that.”
In 2020, Heinicke signed to be Washington’s “quarantine quarterback.” When he arrived, he was asked to keep a distance from the others in the room to ensure he’d be healthy and available in case coronavirus or injuries affected the position.
By the end of the season, they had.
Dwayne Haskins had been cut, Kyle Allen was hurt, and Alex Smith was nursing another leg injury. So Heinicke stepped in for his first playoff start, against the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His performance, which included a clutch pylon-dive touchdown, reset his career. But he also injured his shoulder, so he set out last offseason to bulk up.
“The durability was the biggest question mark,” Heinicke said. “I started one game back in 2018 [with the Carolina Panthers] and tore my triceps in the first half. There’s been a number of concussions throughout the years. So that was the biggest question mark I wanted to check, and I did that.”
He also had issues with his mechanics. Looking back at film, he saw his hips weren’t pulling through. A lot of his weight was on his front foot when he threw, so he couldn’t drive the ball well, and often his shoulder was down, prohibiting him from getting air under his throws.
Heinicke said Dedeaux opened his eyes to a lot of things he hadn’t otherwise noticed. Before practices, where Heinicke is typically the first player on the field, he goes through a unique warm-up routine to get his body ready. And at times during practices, Wentz has reminded Heinicke to think of what Dedeaux taught him about little details.
“Looking back at last year through this offseason … sometimes I overcomplicated things,” Heinicke said. “Sometimes I was looking too far into the defense when it’s black and white: If they do this, throw to here. I was just thinking too much. So one of the biggest things throughout this OTAs and minicamp is to just stick to the playbook. What we talk about in meetings, let’s just go out there and execute it; don’t think too much about it. I feel like I’ve made some strides.”
Heinicke knows through firsthand experience how much circumstances can change in the NFL and how quickly he might be called upon to lead Washington’s offense. Last year, he began as the backup to Fitzpatrick despite an impressive playoff showing the previous winter. This year, he is a backup to Wentz despite starting 16 games last season.
But he also knows his reality — and he could see it clearly late last season, when the Commanders set out to get another quarterback, either through free agency or the draft.
They didn’t offer him the opportunity to try to win the starting job before the season.
“I don’t think that’s an option,” Heinicke said in June. “You look at the NFL, and, at the end of the day, it’s kind of a business. And if you’re paying someone $30 million, and you’re paying someone else $2 million, you’re paying this guy $30 million to play, you know?”
Heinicke is the Commanders quarterback with the most experience in offensive coordinator Scott Turner’s system, but he arrived this year with peace of mind and the intent to serve a dual role: as reliable backup to Wentz and mentor to rookie Sam Howell — or, as he calls it, being a “Shaun Hill,” his mentor in Minnesota in 2015-16.
“I hope [Wentz] goes out there and succeeds,” Heinicke said. “Again, my job is just to back him up. Hopefully he’s on his deal, [and] I’m helping out whatever way I can, and if for some reason he goes down, I’m ready to go play. That’s how I look at it.”
As he prepares for his seventh NFL season, Heinicke has learned a few things about the game and himself — things he coincidentally often thought about as he worked on his new hobby.
“A lot of fun. Lots of details but frustrating at points, too,” he said of building the Millennium Falcon. “There’s so many small pieces that I had no idea where that fell off from. So I’d go back to the instructions trying to find it. That was my favorite.”