ASHBURN, Va. — The Washington commanders said it all offseason: quarterback Sam Howell was her type. Then, during last week’s draft, her actions spoke even louder. The Commanders didn’t draft a quarterback like some analysts had predicted. Which means Howell really is her type, just like they said she was all along.
That may have surprised many outside of Washington, but the Commanders really like Howell, who is entering his second season, and sources within the team say they plan to give him his first shot at the entry-level job in 2023. You like how he’s fared in 2022, culminating in a 26-6 win in the regular-season finals against Dallas. In his only starting and game action, Howell completed 11 of 19 passes for 169 yards, a touchdown pass, a rushing TD and an interception.
But the team’s faith in him goes beyond what he showed in that game.
“I’m happy with where he is,” Washington general manager Martin Mayhew said.
Therefore, the commanders were not tempted to choose Kentuckies Will Levis when he was available with the 16th pick, he opted for cornerback instead Emmanuel Forbes. A team source said the only quarterback they were tempted to play was Tennessee’s Hendon hooker – but only if he was part of the selection in the third round.
Still, they didn’t feel the same urgency they felt last offseason when they called every team that might have a quarterback available. They even called retired Andrew Luck just in case. They eventually traded two third-round picks for Indianapolis Carson Wentz and its $28 million cap. They then clipped Wentz from season-ending injuries and inconsistent play helped him finish 30th in QBR after just eight starts. This offseason, her only move at the position has been the signing of a veteran Jacoby Brissett.
With new ownership soon to come, coach Ron Rivera and his staff enter a pivotal year, and Howell is the guy who could make or break their fate. You need him to work. And that’s why they’re confident he can:
“I’m not suggesting he’ll be the next Drew Brees, but…”
Washington’s scouts gave him a grade equivalent to a second-round pick, according to sources with knowledge of the commanders’ draft process. Some of them gave him an equivalent in the third round, others had him late in the first round. A source said before the draft that if they hadn’t acted for Wentz, they would have targeted Howell on day two. When he was still available in the fifth round, the commanders pounced.
In the scouting receiver Dyami Brown They got to see Howell up close ahead of the 2021 draft and on his pro day in North Carolina, where Howell threw passes to him.
“It was a very impressive day,” Mayhew said. “You would have thought he would be one of the guys coming out. And there’s a quiet confidence he has. The boys trust him, they respect him, he works his ass off. He’s very smart. Like I said, he can do any shot there is and the guy is very, very talented. He’s going to be a good player, I think.”
The commanders also knew exactly what the tar-heel trainers thought of Howell. They thought Howell was obsessed with the game and said he would study fronts and protections on Sunday mornings – the day after a game – which allowed coaches to have more advanced conversations with him when they met.
“The game comes naturally to him,” former UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said, now in Wisconsin.
After the draft, Longo Howell compared to ex-Saints of New Orleans Quarterback Drew Brees. In terms of height, Howell is taller at 6ft 1in and has pocket presence and the ability to make quick throws even when defenders are swarming around him.
“I’m not suggesting he’ll be the next Drew Brees,” Longo said, “but he has the same skills.”
“I’ve come far”
During training camp compared to the other quarterbacks on the list – Wentz and backup Taylor Heinicke — Howell was well behind. Numerous sources from the team said at the time that he needed to improve his fundamentals. Howell himself said he had to focus on his footwork and timing his feet with route concepts – something he didn’t do that often in North Carolina.
“We’ve seen him get lazy about some things because of his quick ability to get the ball out,” Rivera said.
In a preseason game against Baltimore, Rivera pointed to a game where Howell failed to take a quick shotgun shuffle that would have given him a five-stage drop. Instead, he stayed close to where he took the snap and was dismissed from the game. But, Rivera said, if Howell had used the right footwork, he would have had more depth and better timing on the route.
“That’s what I was worried about,” Rivera said of the effects of sloppy footwork.
“In college, we used the same decline for most of our passing games,” Howell said in December. “Here you have to know the exact drop every game and how many shots the ball has to come out in each progression.”
But Howell and the coaches focused on his footwork from the moment he arrived. At the end of the season it was better. And by the end of the season, Howell was in a good position. Even though he has to learn a new system under new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Howell likes where he is in his development. His footwork wasn’t an issue in the season finale win over Dallas.
“I’ve come a long way,” he said.
“Players know players”
Because Wentz was out for seven weeks last season with a broken right ring finger, Howell had a chance to snap with the first-team in training. Heinicke, starting for Wentz, got almost all the reps, but there were periods when Howell took all the snaps.
“Towards the end of last season we saw some really positive signs that really showed that he’s very confident and comfortable,” Rivera said. “A couple of times things happened in training and you saw him fix it himself. This has always been something to look for. He probably did things like that mid to late in the season, so we felt very comfortable with that.
Prior to this, Howell’s primary assignment had been with the scout team. His job was to mimic the opponent’s attack against a defense that had worked against certain looks.
“You know what’s coming on defense, but he still made the throws. That was impressive,” Rivera said.
Rivera said he noticed how players reacted to Howell in practice, whether on the scout team or with the starters. Privately, by the end of the season, players felt ready to start – some even predicted he would do very well in the NFL.
“The first thing you heard from the defenders was, ‘I was trying to make that play, I just couldn’t get the ball,'” Rivera said. “The old saying goes, players know players. If you listen to them talk about it [receivers would say], ‘His ball was so catchable; he threw that on the only spot [open].”
Sam Howell’s first NFL pass attempt goes to Terry McLaurin for a TD!
— NFL (@NFL) January 8, 2023
“The throw on the touchdown was as good as it gets”
Howell’s lonely start almost didn’t happen. Rivera initially started Heinicke to start the finals against the Cowboys even though Washington had been eliminated. The plan was for Howell to then take over during the game. But Heinicke and others convinced Rivera that Howell should start and get the whole game.
It’s good that he listened; Howell was able to show more of what he could. Rivera liked that after he threw an interception in the end zone, Howell immediately told him what he did wrong and how to correct it.
There were other plays that stood out for Washington. He hit the receiver on Howell’s first pass after a turnover from Dallas Terry McLaurin for a 16-yard touchdown. The Cowboys were in man coverage, but McLaurin’s man handed him over to a linebacker over center to remove a flat cross.
However, Howell read the men’s coverage at the line and was prepared for how the Cowboys played against McLaurin. He also knew how McLaurin would react to the route he had chosen – continued to be run over because it was a human. Rivera said Howell made the game because of his pre-snap read.
“The throw on the touchdown was as good as it gets,” Rivera said. “He hit him in the crotch.”
Howell later connected to the receiver Jahan Dotson for gains of 30, 22, and 20 yards. Of those 74 yards, 47 came after the catch. There was a slant over center as he gained 22 yards from the catch that Howell planted in, patted the ball once and hit Dotson in the crotch before a defender could come to the rescue.
Then, with the defenders almost on his lap, he connected with Dotson on a 10-yard out, putting the ball wide and leading Dotson for 10 more yards.
“He was the reason I turned it up and got yards on catch,” Dotson said. “On the slopes in the middle, he put it exactly where it needed to be. The arm talent, we all knew he had it. It was just about getting into those situations.”