Welcome to SB Nation Reacts, a survey of fans across the NFL. Throughout the year we ask questions of the most plugged-in Washington Commanders fans and fans across the country. Sign up here to participate in regular email surveys.
We begin our survey with the usual weekly question that asks if you are confident in the direction of the team. After a Week 16 game in which the Commanders rallied late behind Jacoby Brissett to score three touchdowns and take the lead inside of two minutes, only to lose to the Jets on a game-ending field goal, how are you feeling?
I think because the Redskins - Washington Football Team - Commanders have struggled for so long (roughly 30 years) to play football that fans can be proud of, many of us have learned to be quite specific in how we root for the team.
For more than a decade, here on Hogs Haven, I have read comments that feel very alien to me. For example, I’ve often read comments from Hogs Haven members who have said that they don’t want to get their hopes up for team success because they don’t want to be disappointed by the inevitable failure. Personally, I grew up with an understanding that sports fandom comes with a certain level of irrationality, and the idea of ‘this could be their year’ or ‘any given Sunday’ is woven into the fiber of nearly every sports fan. Maybe times have changed and I’ve failed to change with them.
Hoping to lose
Another phenomenon that seems to me to be more recent is the tendency of some fans to selectively root for or against individuals as they cross their fingers and hope for the team to lose. There are two recent examples of this that I can point to. One is Ron Rivera. Fans who decided (whenever they did) that they didn’t like Ron and that he had to go, have frequently commented on the blog that they hoped that the team would lose enough games that the coach would get fired. The rationale offered was usually something along the lines of Ron not being good enough to get the team to a championship, so losing now is in the best interests of the team over the long term. These fans were rooting against Ron Rivera and against the team. A second example arose over the past several weeks. As losses piled up and fans began to focus on draft position, a certain number of fans started to write every week that they hoped that Sam Howell played well enough to establish himself, but that the defense would shit the bed so badly that the team would lose, thus improving 2024 draft position. These fans were invested in the success of one individual — Sam Howell — but actively rooting against the team on a weekly basis. The rationale for the losing is, of course, the concept of ‘tanking’ for draft position, but the fan investment in Sam Howell as an individual seems a bit more complex and intriguing.
In his sophomore year at UNC, it was widely accepted that, had Sam Howell been eligible to enter the draft, he would be one of the top QBs drafted — perhaps even #1 overall. His junior season, however, did not go well. That took the shine off of Howell, and he ended up going to Washington as the first pick in the 5th round of the 2022 draft. This began the fan ‘investment’ into Sam Howell — the thought that, somehow, Washington had gotten a ‘steal’ in the 5th round. Oddly, given this notion that Sam was really a first round talent in disguise, part of Sam’s appeal was also that he was now an underdog, since we all know the typical success rate of 5th round quarterbacks in the NFL.
After the Carson Wentz experiment ended up in a burnt and smoking wreck, Sam offered genuine hope. Washington hadn’t enjoyed success with veteran quarterbacks. Alex Smith, despite being the winningest Washington quarterback in 30 years, was never popular with fans because of his conservative style of play, and the leg injury ended any possibility that he could become the long-term solution. First round draft picks — Dwayne Haskins, RG3, even Jason Campbell — hadn’t worked out. Interestingly, the most success the franchise had had at the quarterback position since the days of Mark Brunell came with another mid-round pick, Kirk Cousins. Perhaps the Commanders could achieve more success with this latest mid-round quarterback who was in a better situation than Cousins had been now that we had new owners and — soon — a new front office and coaching staff.
To a fan base that had seen no sustained success by trading for veterans or investing high draft picks in the quarterback position, Sam Howell offered a different alternative — a young signal caller with a live arm who had three years left on his rookie contract. By pairing him up with an aggressive offensive coordinator like Eric Bieniemy, the franchise could build a dynamic offense around a guy who was earning only $1m per year. The effect on the salary cap meant that the front office could build championship roster on both offense and defense.
And so, nearly all of us became invested in Sam Howell. He represented the unicorn — young, talented, tough, and on a very cheap rookie contract.
Things started well enough. In Sam’s first 10 games of the season, the team was 4-6. The entire team had a brutal outing in Week 3 against the Bills, followed two weeks later by a stunning loss to the Chicago Bears in a prime time game. The difficult road loss that the team suffered against the Giants was partially offset by a good showing in an overtime loss to the Eagles in another NFC East road game.
source: Pro Football Reference
More importantly, while the team was below .500, Sam looked pretty good (aside from a pesky issue with sacks that plagued him through the first 7 games). He was completing over 66% of his passes (while leading the league in pass attempts), and had a 17:9 TD:INT ratio, with only one multi-interception game.
Things started to go wrong for Sam Howell around Week 11 — the home game against the Giants. Sam threw 3 interceptions in that game, beginning a pattern that has persisted. Over the past 5 weeks, as a passer, Sam has a TD:INT ratio of 2:8, and 3 of those 8 interceptions were returned for defensive touchdowns! His completion percentage has tumbled to 55% as his yards per attempt has fallen from 7.01 to 5.26.
The only real improvement has been the rate at which Sam is getting sacked. For the first 7 weeks of the ‘23 season, Sam was being sacked on 15.6% of his dropbacks. Since Week 8, that number has dropped to 6.6%. Washington went 3-4 in the 7 games when Sam was getting sacked; they’ve won only once in the 8 games since the sack problem was ‘solved’.
What’s become increasingly clear over the past month is that Sam Howell is not playing very well. Ron Rivera said he’s been “pressing”. Eric Bieniemy has said publicly that Sam simply needs to be ‘decisive’.
In each of the last two games (on the road vs Rams and Jets) Sam has been benched late, and there has been a stark contrast between the play of the starter and that of his veteran backup. In roughly 30 minutes of game clock over two weeks, Jacoby Brissett led 5 touchdown drives to give the team a chance to win each game. In both games, it was the coaches’ clock management via playcalling that ultimately led to the rallies falling short. Against the Rams, Washington’s offense had the ball with 1st & goal at the 1-yard line with 4:47 remaining on the clock, but took 3 minutes to score the touchdown, which didn’t leave enough time to complete the comeback. This past Sunday, against the Jets in New Jersey, Washington’s offense took over possession of the football with a 1-point lead with 2:07 left in the game. Earlier in the season, EB had shown a willingness to put his foot on the gas, but against the Jets, who had timeouts and the 2-minute warning, instead of asking Brissett to drive a nail in the coffin, Bieniemy called 3 straight running plays for a net of 2 yards, and Washington punted the ball back to New York with plenty of time (1:41) on the clock for the home team to kick a field goal for the win.
That brings us up to the moment. Sam Howell — a guy that many fans have been invested in for a long time — has been playing poorly, possibly due to the way he is being coached. The veteran Brissett has played well in two brief appearances at the end of two games, both of which resulted in losses.
In answer to a series of questions about the starting quarterback in his media session today, Ron Rivera had a lot to say, starting with the fact that he hadn’t yet made a decision about who would start Sunday against the visiting 49ers.
I think right now, you watch [Sam Howell] and he’s trying to make the perfect play. I think he’s reading a little bit more into some of the things that he sees out there. I think he’s just got to settle in and trust what he’s seeing initially and stick with the offense.
Things [went] relatively well early in the season and into the middle, but it’s been tough the last couple of weeks. The last few weeks have been tough on him; he’s taken a lot of snaps. The length of the season, obviously, is probably wearing on him as well as the number of plays he’s had and the number of hits he’s had to absorb.
Not only did Ron Rivera not back Sam Howell unequivocally, he seems to be holding the door wide open to the possibility of Jacoby Brissett being named the starter for one or both of Washington’s final two games.
The QB conundrum
For fans who are invested in the idea of Sam Howell as the team’s starter, this seems to be a blow. Being benched as the starter at this point in his career might be a setback from which Sam Howell never recovers.
For those who see themselves as ‘rational’ fans who value the long-term progress over the short-term ‘sugar rush’ of a meaningless win, the switch from a struggling Sam Howell to a confident Jacoby Brissett might also seem like bad news, since it could lead to a loss of draft position if the team wins one or both of its final two games.
But here we are, once again, with a quarterback conundrum in Washington DC.
Is it better for Sam Howell and for the team to just stick with the young man for two more games, and then let the chips fall where they may as Washington’s upcoming tumultuous offseason unfolds?
Or, should the coaches be protecting Sam from what appears to be a crisis of confidence and try to give the team a chance to win its final two games — and potentially hurt its 2024 draft position — by turning to Jacoby Brissett?
That’s the second question in today’s poll — should Jacoby Brissett be named the starting quarterback for the final two games of the 2023 season?
Comments & Results
Of course, we invite you to answer the survey questions below, but also feel free to expand on your answers and provide nuance in the comments section. I rely on those comments when discussing the results of the survey when they are posted in a separate article the next few days.