LANDOVER — Chants of “SELL THE TEAM” by perpetually aggrieved Washington fans at FedEx Field were overtaken Sunday — for a few exuberant minutes at least — by triumphant, resounding cries of “HEIN-ICKE! HEIN-ICKE! after the gutsy quarterback gave the COs a double-digit lead over the Minnesota Vikings.
But the gunslinger who won the hearts of the Washington faithful with his shoot-first-ask-later mentality had a crucial miss — a late interception — that gave Kirk Cousins and Co. a fighting chance. sneak out of town with a win.
Heinicke stood in front of a lectern after Washington’s 20-17 loss with an anguished look on his face. The sound of cheering was long gone, silenced by the Commanders’ fourth quarter meltdown.
The Commanders lost a 17-7 lead and Heinicke contributed to the collapse, but he was not alone. On the Vikings’ game-winning drive, a relatively obscure defensive tackle from the backup Commanders committed a costly penalty that gave Cousins another round of downs – a mistake that allowed Minnesota to empty the clock 16 seconds before kicker Greg Joseph only made his game-winning 28 yards.
“No one will be harder on me than myself,” Heinicke said.
March cannot come soon enough for the commanders’ base of true believers.
That’s when, according to Fox NFL insider Jay Glazer, the sale of beleaguered owner Dan Snyder’s team could officially be completed. Glazer reported on the network’s pregame show that Snyder is expected to receive an offer of at least $7 billion for his downtrodden franchise and there’s “hope” the process will be completed in time for NFL owners’ meetings.
There was also speculation over the weekend that a new owner – Amazon’s Jeff Bezos? Media magnate Byron Allen? Mortgage manager Mat Ishbia? They are all among potential Snyder replacements – can restart stalled stadium talks.
In the locker room, the possibility of a new owner mattered little to the players whose three-game winning streak had just been snapped. There was a sense of calm, with the players knowing they had passed up a precious opportunity. The Commanders could have made a statement beating the now Minnesota Vikings 7-1.
Instead, the commanders fell to 4-5.
“Good teams find ways to win,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “We did not do it.”
This loss came at the hands of familiar faces. Cousins — the former Washington starter — threw for 265 yards, two touchdowns and an interception as he held off a litany of hits to keep his team in the game. The Vikings are also coached by Kevin O’Connell, the former Washington offensive coordinator who got Minnesota off to their best start since 2009.
Cousins was arguably Washington’s most trusted quarterback in the more than 20 years that Snyder owned. Notably, Commanders struggled to fill his spot with 11 different starting quarterbacks after Cousins left in 2018.
Heinicke, coincidentally, has started the most games for Washington at quarterback since then. But his flaws are obvious, even when he is able to overcome them.
There was no better illustration than Heinicke’s 49-yard bomb against receiver Curtis Samuel in the third quarter. The play was Washington’s best of the afternoon: Samuel snatched the ball and rolled into the end zone for a touchdown despite having three defenders right next to him.
Still, Heinicke purposely kicked the ball into triple coverage. Samuel had a hell of a shot, but he was also helped by Vikings cornerback Camryn Bynum who collided with a referee.
“I saw him throw it and I said ‘Oh,'” said coach Ron Rivera, who looked down and closed his eyes to mimic his reaction.
“The umpire made a great play for us,” said Heinicke, who finished with 149 yards on 15 of 28 passes for two touchdowns and an interception.
The forced pass can be overlooked, even celebrated, when it results in a positive play – Samuel’s touchdown gave Washington a 10-7 lead shortly after halftime. But Heinicke’s judgment is harder to ignore when the picks lead to tiebreaks.
During his interception, Heinicke missed his first read on the play to target tight end Logan Thomas in midfield. Thomas was open, but Heinicke kicked the ball too high – landing in the arms of Vikings safety Harrison Smith.
After rolling it back 35 yards to Washington’s 12-yard line, Smith celebrated the turnaround with elaborate choreography: He rolled the ball into a parade of teammates, who crumbled as if they were skittles in a bowling alley. Feeding off the momentum, the Vikings scored when Cousins hit running back Dalvin Cook for a 12-yard touchdown.
“Taylor made a mistake, but everything he was doing before that, he was playing,” Thomas said. “He made plays and plays that weren’t even there. … Everyone makes mistakes in this game – I’ve made several mistakes – but they just don’t get highlighted like an interception does.
Thomas is right. The Vikings tied the game with just under eight minutes left – plenty of time for Washington to rally. But commanders made other mistakes. The offense, on the ensuing possession, went three and out.
No mistake was more punishing than when defensive tackle John Ridgeway was called for unnecessary roughness with 1:56 left in the game. The penalty wiped out what would have been a Vikings field goal as Ridgeway ‘made forced contact’ with the Vikings head and neck ‘immediately after the snap and before he had time to protect himself’ , said the senior vice president of the NFL. Referee Walt Anderson told a pool reporter.
Instead of the Commanders winning the ball back two minutes from time, the Vikings could now cut time with a new set of downs. Why didn’t the commanders just let the Vikings score? Minnesota knew Washington had only one timeout left and ran plays to burn time, O’Connell said.
“They weren’t going to the line of scrimmage,” Rivera said.
By the time Washington recovered the ball, the commanders had 12 seconds to run 75 yards. They do not have.
“It was another game we should have had,” defensive end Montez Sweat said. “I can’t even tell you how frustrated I am. But I’m not the only one.”