Howell wasn’t perfect in Sunday’s come-from-behind, down-to-the-last-play 35-33 victory over the Denver Broncos at Empower Field. He won’t be perfect next week against Buffalo or the following week at Philadelphia, tough tasks both. But being perfect isn’t the assignment. That would be growing each week. That would be getting up when he’s knocked down. That would be showing he’s the quarterback for 2024 and beyond.
“He’s learning,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “I think he’s going to get better.”
That’s the course. Two weeks are too few to make any franchise-changing pronouncements because we know how much quarterback instability is baked into Washington’s cake. So deep breaths are in order. Howell hasn’t yet faced or beaten a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Those challenges await. The full evaluation is to come.
But in Sunday’s 27-for-39, 299-yard, two-touchdown performance that was defined by its poise, he followed iffy plays with solid ones, made smart choices with all manner of limbs swarming in his face and teeth nipping at his heels, and looked the part of NFL starting quarterback. For a fifth-round pick in the 2022 draft, can you ask much more? Not just in the stat line. But in the way he carries himself.
“Man, I’ve said it before, and I’ve been saying it since camp,” left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said. “He’s unfazed. He’s always the same. Good play. Bad play. Doesn’t matter.”
That’s the proper attitude for any professional football player — for any athlete, really. But for a kid who turned just 23 on Saturday and is being entrusted to play a $6 billion franchise’s most important position, it’s massive. Leno, a 10-year veteran, said he approached Howell on the sideline to tell him as much.
“That’s important as a quarterback,” Leno said he told Howell. “The team responds to that. That’s what a quarterback is supposed to do.”
The other thing he’s supposed to do: be able to sling the dang football, to put it in tight spaces, to have the combination of arm strength, anticipation, preparation and decision-making that separates mediocre quarterbacks from good — let’s not get to great yet — ones.
So we direct you to first and 10 from the Denver 30, with the Commanders having clawed back to within 21-14 early in the third quarter.
“I’ve been wanting a play down the field for a while,” star wide receiver Terry McLaurin said, chuckling.
So many things about what happened on the ensuing play down the field were impressive, both on the face of it in real time and in hearing about what led to it. What was apparent in person: McLaurin had Broncos cornerback Damarri Mathis on his back and safety Delarrin Turner-Yell in front of him.
“I trusted that me and Sam were going to connect on that play,” McLaurin said.
In his fifth year in Washington, McLaurin knows nothing but a quarterback carousel. So trusting a kid making his third NFL start? “Him and I have had that connection in practice,” McLaurin said, and he talked about Howell knowing where he would be and him knowing where Howell would throw it. Maybe that’s chemistry that has developed with uncommon speed. But it’s also rehearsed.
“That was a play coming into the game we knew we wanted to get called,” Howell said, “just to give Terry an opportunity.”
When the opportunity was there, “Sam threw an unbelievable ball.” It was far enough ahead of McLaurin that the trailing Mathis had no chance. It was lofted just high enough that Turner-Yell, underneath, couldn’t reach it either.
“It shows you he can be pinpoint accurate,” Rivera said.
It shows you he can make throws so many recent Washington quarterbacks couldn’t make.
So the last time Washington scored 35 points in a game? Thanksgiving 2020 in Dallas, when it hung 41 on the Cowboys. But that was punctuated by a Montez Sweat pick-six. The last time this franchise put up 35 on offense? The penultimate game of the 2019 season, when Dwayne Haskins and Case Keenum helped reach that total in New York, a game the Giants won in overtime.
That’s a long way of saying what happened Sunday against the Broncos doesn’t happen much for this franchise. That it happened with Howell at the helm matters. He talks a good quarterback game, too.
“The thing I’m proud of,” he said, “is we had each other’s back on both sides of the ball.”
That happens to be true. To be clear, for any of this to work, the defense has to be this team’s unquestioned strength. For the Broncos’ first three possessions, Washington provided all the resistance of a preschool class at nap time: a 61-yard touchdown drive in which Denver faced just one third down, a 60-yard bomb from Russell Wilson to rookie Marvin Mims Jr., then 90 yards in nine plays that included a 53-yard strike to Mims.
That’s the path to a 21-3 Denver lead. It’s also a path that is unacceptable if the Commanders actually want to be relevant this season. The defense seemed to recognize that and from that point forward was perhaps the best version of itself — at least until Wilson’s last-play Hail Mary that brought the Broncos within two.
Daron Payne is absolutely too much for offensive linemen to handle. Linebacker Jamin Davis provided a route to a comeback with a forced fumble. Sweat disrupted his way to a 1.5 sacks.
And – well, what have we here? – Chase Young made his season debut after enduring a stinger in the preseason opener. He sparkled. He sacked Wilson from behind. He got in Wilson’s face. He was around the ball. He looked like a force.
“Great to see Chase out there,” Howell said.
That’s a player who understands just by the nature of his job title — starting NFL quarterback — that the team is, in some ways, his already. Through two weeks, Sam Howell is completing 65.7 percent of his passes. He has three touchdowns and one interception. He has lost two fumbles. He has been sacked 10 times.
Sometimes he holds on to the ball too long. Sometimes his line lets him down. And sometimes he makes just the right throw at just the right time. The 2023 Commanders are 2-0, and every game is an opportunity to learn more about whether the man playing quarterback for them at the moment could be their quarterback for the foreseeable future. What a notion. Can’t wait till next week.