The Commanders finish their season strong with a convincing 26-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys, improving to 8-8-1 as their season concludes. Washington’s rookie quarterback Sam Howell had a promising debut on Sunday. He finished with 169 passing yards on 11 completions, 35 rushing yards, and one rushing touchdown.
One of the coaching staff’s most significant points of emphasis in Howell’s development was the little details. Last week, Rivera stated that Howell’s footwork and decision-making hindered his ability to quickly get the ball out of his hands and in rhythm. Howell’s performance was not perfect, but he made some big-time throws against Dallas.
Sam Howell & Terry McLaurin (52-yd reception)— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 8, 2023
Air Distance: 60.0 yds*
Target Separation: 0.9 yds
Completion Probability: 20.2%
*Longest completion by a Washington quarterback in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016)#DALvsWAS | #HTTC pic.twitter.com/TqojNWYGRl
Howell’s decision-making and timing within the offense were good enough for him to potentially function as the Commanders starting quarterback. His mobility, from designed runs to scrambles, also helped keep drives alive and put points on the board.
Howell’s performance ultimately begs the question: Did the coaches whiff on their evaluation of Howell throughout this season?
Following the game against Chicago, Rivera went with Taylor Heinicke as the starter to replace the injured Carson Wentz, making Howell the backup. “I mean, we’re still in a good situation still early in the year,” Rivera said in the week leading up to Green Bay. “We like what we’ve got in terms of the skill sets and in terms of our playmakers, you know, guys that we believe we can get the ball to. And don’t want to put Sam in a situation like that this early in his career, you know, we feel he is a young man that as he grows and develops, he’s got a chance.” Rivera also spoke about Howell’s progression, “I think Sam is still learning in terms of what we do and how we do it and how we do it is, you know, that’s the part that you’ve gotta get familiar with there,” Rivera said. “How we go through the progressions, stuff like that, is all about learning and understanding and feeling in terms of knowing what to do in the offense itself.”
The short answer is that I do not believe Rivera and his staff “whiffed” on their evaluation of Howell’s development. His coaches are with him daily and have so much insight that the public does not have. However, I believe they did overlook essential elements of his evaluation, live in-game reps. Coaches missed out on additional ways to test and evaluate Howell because they chose not to play him, impeding their ability to see how far he has come in their offense. Given the circumstances, it was understandable at the time to go to Heinicke. It did not make sense to play Howell while the Commanders were not officially eliminated from playoff contention.
Maybe this was one of those games where the “unknown” put the opposing team at a disadvantage that favored Howell, and more tape on him might make things difficult for him as the starts begin to accumulate. Or maybe Howell was a victim of circumstance and is better than the other two quarterbacks on the roster, buried behind two veterans that had no business playing over him.
After Howell’s performance against the Cowboys, I think he made a strong case that, at the very least, he should be competing for the starting quarterback position in 2023. But, at the same time, the best case is that his coaches eventually hand him the keys at some point in this off-season.