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The Brutal Reality of an NFL Opportunity

The first day of the NFL playoffs did not disappoint. The playoffs & superbowls of the league create stories, create heroes. Those heroes are born from the shadows when they finally get their shot when it matters the most. Malcolm Butler’s name will be remembered forever for the goal line play he made that won the Patriots another super bowl. That one play. Nick Foles. Same deal. Yesterday, two more young men got their chance to prove something to the world of football. And man, this game sure is brutal. Step up Taylor Heinicke, and John Wolford.

A window of opportunity

Taylor Heinicke & John Wolford came into the playoffs with a combined two starts. Heinicke started for the Carolina Panthers in week 16 back in 2018 against the Atlanta Falcons, and Wolford had never started an NFL game before until week 17 of the current season, where he replaced the injured Goff against the Cardinals.

Yet here we are, in the NFL playoffs wildcard round, and both of these young men found themselves in the cockpit of their respective teams.

This season, more than any other, has thrown up situations that led to back ups of back ups finding themselves on the field. With COVID and all of it’s nuisances, teams have had to dig around to find suitable guys who’d be ready should they be needed. It’s certainly been an interesting year, and COVID won’t be slowing down now that we’re in the playoffs. Teams have a plan to back up the plan to back up the plan.

And that’s exactly what Heinicke was. But before we talk about his game, I’d like to touch on John Wolford.

Brutal damn luck for Wolford

John Wolford, who was a member of the Jets practice squad in 2018, last played football in the brief AAF league in 2019. A three star recruit out of college, he played his college ball at Wake Forest, and earned himself second team all ACC honours, plus set a school record for passer rating, passing yards, touchdown passes, total offensive yards, and touchdowns, plus the school record for career touchdowns.

He was undrafted in 2018. And cut by the Jets on September 4th after a period of time on the practice squad. He then spent a season with the Arizona Hotshots of the AAF until the league called it a day, and signed with the Rams in April 2019, where he found a home once again on the practice squad.

So many guys ‘careers’ go this way, and they wait a lifetime for their moment in the sun. Always preparing, always working, committing to the cause, helping the team win. Being a practice squad quarterback is a role in itself. It’s not easy work. You have to be mentally ready. Always.

And his time finally came. Wolford had a decent game against the Cardinals, but didn’t manage to throw a touchdown. Many were excited about the idea of him playing as it allowed boy wonder head coach Sean McVay to open up his playbook with a mobile quarterback.

Seeming fearless, Wolford showed ability to take off and run downfield, and the Rams introduced designed runs for him to escape the pocket and gain some yards.

Jan 9, 2021; Seattle, Washington, USA; Los Angeles Rams quarterback John Wolford (9) leaves the field after being injured during the first quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

But devastatingly, Wolfords’ moment in the sun was cut very short, when a collision with Jamal Adams on his way to the ground caused him an injury that would take him out of the game, and straight to hospital. In a hard hit, Wolfords’ helmet met with Jamal’s shoulder, one of the hardest hitting dudes in the league, and that would be all she wrote… I’ll come back to this point in a moment.

Heinicke. Maths to Magic

Taylor Heinicke not so long ago was studying for a maths degree. And now he found himself going toe to toe with Tom Brady, in a playoff game. Which is WILD.

Heinicke was undrafted in 2015, after playing college football at Old Diminion University. His college career was decent but nothing to yell about, and he found himself the third string quarterback on the Minnesota Vikings, backing up Teddy Bridgewater.

A couple of injuries cost him, and he was waived after an injury settlement in September 2017.

He then spent 3 weeks on the Patriots. Followed by around 5 months with the Houston Texans. Heinicke came into the game after starter TJ Yates suffered a concussion. He completed one pass, then suffered a concussion of his own, and Yates was cleared to play and came back in. He was waived a few months later.

His only start came for Ron Rivera and the Panthers, when Cam Newton went down with a shoulder injury. Heinicke played the week 16 match up with the Atlanta Falcons, threw for 274 yards, one touchdown and three picks. He got injured in the game, with an elbow issue, and was replaced by Kyle Allen. He was cut after around 16 months with the Panthers.

He landed in the XFL, another brief venture cut short, and unfortunately never saw the field during the league’s short existence.

These journeys for these young men are a tough venture. Bouncing around the country, years of uncertainty. Waiting forever to get a shot. You can see why it means so much to them when they get a chance to play.

On December the 8th 2020, Heinicke got the call from the Washington football team, and signed to the active roster on December 19th, and saw his first action against the Panthers after Dwayne Haskins was benched in week 16. Ron Rivera must have seen something he liked in Heinicke, because Haskins was waived shortly afterwards, and here we are in the playoffs, with Alex Smith rules out, and the young journeyman is out there starting for Washington, against Tom Brady. No pressure kid.

What a night…

Heinicke was fantastic. All night long. You could just tell he wanted it so badly, and he read the field, completed his passes, showed poise, patience, and grit and determination the whole game. Washington knew they would need to get to Brady to keep themselves in the game, but Brady’s offensive line kept him very well protected and kept Chase Young quiet all night. So they’d need to find their opportunity another way if they were to have a chance.

Heinicke was the answer. At one point he ducked under an oncoming flying defensive linemen, weaved out of the pocket, down the field, and for a first down, and I was watching like… wow okay.

He looked after the ball, was calculated with his throws, on target 95% of the time and made good decisions literally all night. He dashed for the endzone, dived for the pylon, scored a touchdown for his team, and chalked one up for himself in the process. He looked so calm! It’s the playoffs, some of the best have fallen apart, but this game was close because of that young man.

Jan 9, 2021; Landover, Maryland, USA; Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) scores a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the third quarter at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT

Having to go off and get himself checked out briefly had us all holding our breath, i wanted to see him WIN! The world was routing for him at this point, what a story. He came back out, played through clear pain, and left everything he had out on the field. He was a living example of playing like it was his last game, and I have a new admiration for him.

The Highs and the Lows

My point is that this league is totally brutal. It will chew you up and spit you out and nobody will remember your name all within a matter of moments. I feel so sorry for John Wolford, and I hope he gets another chance someday, or that the Rams hold onto him and we’ll see him again. The league is just so limited in the opportunities you get, particularly when you’re struggling for a spot every second of every day. It’s tough out on the fringe, and to see him get taken to hospital after getting a chance to prove himself on the big stage sucks.

When you compare his night to Heinickes’, who competed all night with the greatest to ever do it, and came up just short. The league would have been watching. Heinicke earned himself some money last night. There’ll be a team that will want him. He did more than enough to earn that. Even getting a nod from the league’s best right now… as well as many other current and ex NFL stars.

And that’s just the way it goes. For some, you get your chance and you take it, that’s how some of the incredible stories of the game we love are born. I’m not saying either of these young men are the next Tom Brady, not even close, but Brady was the 199th player picked. Who’s to say if he’d got injured in his first game that he didn’t find himself cut, jumping from team to team looking for a chance. The window is so small. Hats off the Heinicke, he deserves everything coming his way. And a thought for John Wolford, who will be sick to his stomach after missing out on what would have been the opportunity of a lifetime. We’re with you John, I hope you get another chance young sir.

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