Carson Wentz knew it too and promptly began practicing snaps with center Wes Schweitzer by the bench.
After Heinicke led Washington on a 5-2-1 stretch and into the playoff hunt, his run came to a crashing halt Saturday afternoon as turnovers and penalties felled the Commanders. Despite an efficient showing for three quarters, he was benched for Wentz midway through the fourth quarter.
The starter for next week’s game against Cleveland is to be determined.
“We’re going to evaluate the tape and talk about those things, and I’ll make a decision net week,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “I’ll make it early, too, because whoever is going to start is going to get the chance to work.”
Washington (7-7-1) is still in seventh place in the NFC, thanks to earlier losses in the day by the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks, and still controls its playoff fate. The Commanders’ likeliest route to the postseason is through winning their final two games, against the Browns and Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field.
The quarterback situation started to become cloudy after the Commanders’ Week 15 loss to the New York Giants in which Heinicke fumbled twice in the red zone, costing the team its best chance of securing a playoff berth.
His leash in Santa Clara was short. Very short. And even after making the change, Rivera conceded that fault on the turnovers wasn’t solely on Heinicke.
“To pin them all on him would be really tough,” Rivera said. “Those weren’t his issues. There were some things that we could’ve done better.”
Heinicke went 13 of 18 for 166 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and one fumble, a stat line marred by those turnovers. He closed the first half with 8 of 11 in passing with a 126.7 rating and a beauty of touchdown pass to rookie wideout Jahan Dotson in the corner of the end zone. But Washington failed to score on a fourth-and-one from the one-yard line in the second quarter, and after the fourth-quarter turnovers, Wentz took over and led the Commanders on an 82-yard scoring drive.
Heinicke was the first to congratulate Wentz as he trotted off the field following his 20-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Samuel, and he immediately acknowledged his play postgame.
“I felt like we were playing good there for, what, three and a half quarters,” Heinicke said. “Obviously, not how you want to start the fourth quarter. But they made the decision to put Carson in, and I thought he did a great job and moved the ball well. It’s pretty cool that was his first game that he’s seen for a while now, and his first drive he goes down and scores a touchdown. He was ready for his moment.”
Wentz’s scoring pass merely shaved the 49ers’ lead to 10. There was already too much self-inflicted damage for the Commanders: penalties (six, for a loss of 51 yards), turnovers (two) and big plays allowed by a previously stout defense — many of the same issues that hindered the start to the season.
Going into the game, the Commanders said they wanted to emphasize the run, especially after Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner bemoaned the minimal touches for rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. Getting him the ball early and often, and staying committed to the run, were priorities Saturday.
But against the 49ers’ league-leading run defense, Washington’s commitment failed to pay dividends. On 24 first-half carries, the Commanders totaled only 52 yards for an average of 2.2 per run. Robinson finished with 22 carries for 58 yards, and the team had 79 yards on the ground.
After a pair of three-and-outs to start the game, the Commanders’ offense found some semblance of rhythm on their third drive, traversing 84 net yards on 17 plays before stalling at the 1-yard line, unable to convert on fourth down when Antonio Gibson was stopped short.
“I thought we moved the ball pretty well there in the first half,” Heinicke said. “We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot.”
On the other side of the ball, defensive end Chase Young made his season debut after an extended absence to recover from a knee injury. The plan was to limit him to 12-16 snaps, but that was scrapped in the second half as he settled in. Young appeared spry in his first game back, recording a batted pass and a couple of tackles.
“The best thing, though, was his conditioning,” Rivera said. “… We told him he had to be honest, we were going to trust him, and when we got to the fourth quarter, they asked if we wanted to shut him down and I went over and talked to him directly and he told me, ‘Coach, I’m really feeling well.’ … So we kept going.”
But the Commanders were coping with another injury to a key defender: Do-it-all safety Kam Curl was sidelined because of an ankle issue — he said he was close to playing but felt he couldn’t do what he needed after testing it pregame — and to compensate, Rivera turned primarily to Jeremy Reaves. Although he held up, breakdowns occurred elsewhere.
In the second quarter, Washington’s run defense came undone on a 71-yard touchdown by Ray-Ray McCloud, who burst through the right side of the line and found a wide lane.
In the third quarter, 49ers rookie signal-caller Brock Purdy found tight end George Kittle wide open in the middle of the field after a coverage breakdown. Safety Darrick Forrest, who picked off Purdy in the second quarter to set up the touchdown by Dotson, was deep and failed to track Kittle, who sped past him on a seam route for a 33-yard touchdown.
“I have to be better than that,” Forrest said. “I knew as soon as I saw him, this is my fault.”
Rivera, still hot from calls that went against the Commanders against the Giants, had lengthy conversations with officials again Saturday. In the third quarter, the Commanders called a quarterback sneak on a fourth and one in their own territory, but after bringing the chains out to measure, officials ruled they were short by inches. Rivera gave the officials an earful, then watched from the sideline as Purdy again found Kittle for a quick score.
The Commanders’ response: Give Terry McLaurin a shot. A big one.
From his own 43-yard line with about three minutes left in the third, Heinicke launched a 51-yard pass up the middle to his favorite receiver. With two defenders around him, McLaurin dove for the catch at the San Francisco 6.
“We finally got the opportunity to get a matchup that we wanted, and we took a shot down the field,” McLaurin said. “Taylor did just a great job of giving me a chance to track the ball, and I just wanted to come down with it in that moment.”
The Commanders entered the fourth quarter trailing by just seven points with Heinicke playing well, but a regression on back-to-back drives from the offense sent the quarterback to the bench.
First, Nick Bosa hit Heinicke just as he pulled back to throw, knocking the ball into the arms of Jordan Willis at the Commanders’ 11-yard line. The 49ers turned it into a field goal that expanded their lead to 27-14.
On Washington’s subsequent drive, Heinicke was intercepted by cornerback Jimmie Ward at the 25 on a short pass intended for Robinson. The defense held, forcing a field goal that moved the score to 30-14.
Rivera turned to Wentz for the remainder of the quarter, giving him his first snaps since Week 6, when he injured his finger and was placed on injured reserve.
The Commanders, heads down, trudged off the field with another loss, possibly a different starting quarterback and a dwindling opportunity to return to the postseason.
“It was definitely weird, not going to lie,” Wentz said. “I feel for Taylor, too. I thought he played well. So, just kind of overall weird, and unfortunately we didn’t get it done.”