CHARLOTTE – Three years ago, Scott Turner – then coaching quarterbacks for the Vikings – flew out to pro day at Old Dominion University and had dinner with a highly productive, little-known quarterback prospect named Taylor Heinicke.
Turner was the only NFL coach to attend the workout and he put Heinicke through the paces.
“I’ve known Taylor for a long time,” said Turner, the Panthers' first-year quarterbacks coach. “I watched his film and was intrigued.”
In a few days, that little-known quarterback will be starting for the Panthers in place of Cam Newton.
“I’m excited for Taylor. More than anything, I just think he’s a good football player,” said Turner, who played a role in Heinicke spending his first two NFL seasons with the Vikings. “And he’s going to get an opportunity to show that.”
We’ll get back to Turner’s excitement for Heinicke in a minute. But first, there’s the disappointment that comes with shutting down Newton as a result of shoulder soreness, especially after a first half of the season that was arguably the best of his career.
“It’s tough. You put so much work into this. Cam expressed his frustration after the game, and it just wasn’t getting any better for him. I think it’s the best decision going forward,” Turner said.
“I feel bad for Cam. During the games we know he can make those throws, but physically he just can’t do it. I know how frustrating that is for him. That was probably the toughest part of it.”
Newton clearly hasn’t been himself for weeks, so now it’s Heinicke’s turn to take the reins with the Falcons coming to town for the home finale.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Heinicke has appeared in five games this season, completing two of his four pass attempts for 46 yards. All of his passes came in Hail Mary situations, which became his role with Newton’s shoulder preventing him from launching the ball deep.
“I know everyone made the jokes about being the Hail Mary specialist, but Taylor has got a pretty good arm,” Turner said. “People see a smaller guy and don’t think he’s got the arm strength.”
Turner also likes Heinicke’s smarts and ability to improvise if the play breaks down. All of those skills helped him win the backup quarterback competition this summer.
“He’s a bright guy and he plays fast,” Turner said. “He has some athleticism, so he can make some plays off schedule.”
Heinicke impressed during the preseason, completing 24-of-36 passes for 323 yards and two touchdowns.
And Heinicke’s role as the backup during the regular season has been atypical with Newton’s practice limitations. Heincike has been taking reps with the first team on Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout the season.
“Once the season starts you usually don’t get a lot of reps as the backup, You’re doing a lot of scout team stuff,” Turner said. “But what’s helped him a lot in his development is Cam’s arm needing rest. Taylor got a lot of those practice reps, and he’s gotten a lot better.
“He’s got a good feel for our guys. Those practice reps have been big.”
Heinicke is as prepared as he can be for his first NFL start.
His coaches and teammates are ready to see him seize the moment and let it fly.
“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” Turner said of his message to Heinicke this week. “Go out there and be yourself.”