You look at Washington — the football team, not the city, though this applies there too — and you see nothing but dysfunction, years of underperforming, incompetence and empty promises. But you look a little closer, and Washington has in its hands the most precious of all NFL treasures: a good quarterback on a rookie contract.
Commanders head coach Ron Rivera set himself up for an entire season of second-guessing earlier this year when he named young Sam Howell — with exactly one game of NFL experience at the time — as his starter for 2023. But given that Rivera had won 7, 7 and 8 games in his first three years in Washington, the move was less “riverboat gambler” and more “screw it, I’m all in with my last three chips.”
And then, frankly, something amazing happened. Howell, the 23-year-old fifth-round draft pick out of North Carolina, has played extremely well. So well that statistically, Howell is among the best in the NFL at his position. His 2,471 yards passing rank second only to Tua Tagovailoa. He leads the NFL in attempts and completions, and he ranks seventh in touchdowns.
On the other hand, he’s tied with Josh Allen, Mac Jones and Jimmy Garoppolo with nine interceptions. More troubling is the fact that he has taken 44 sacks — 13 more than his nearest challenger, Zach Wilson.
The sack total, which is on pace to eclipse David Carr’s NFL-record 76 in 2002 with Houston, is partly because of an overmatched Washington offensive line, partly because of Howell’s early season tendency to hold the ball too long. Either way, it’s the most concerning statistic for Washington — this franchise has a bit of a history with star young QBs getting pounded into paste — especially given the opportunity that Howell presents.
Howell’s rookie contract has a salary cap hit of $960,400 this year, and escalates to only $1.19 million by 2025. That’s a whole lot of room to maneuver, and the Commanders have a stash of draft picks next year — one first-rounder, two seconds, two thirds — and just cut loose a whole lot of cap room by sending Montez Sweat and Chase Young across the Potomac.
The question facing new team owner Josh Harris now is whether Rivera and his regime will be around to use those picks. The Commanders snuck in the back door of the playoffs back in the 2020 season, but two straight seven-win seasons — and some uninspiring play this year to date — haven’t exactly instilled confidence.
In more immediate terms, the Commanders have benefitted from a ridiculously easy early 2023 schedule. They’re 4-5 on the season, but 0-3 against teams with a winning record. Washington has fattened up on Arizona, Denver, Atlanta and New England … not exactly a quartet that’ll be around for the conference championships.
From here, the road turns rocky: Seattle this coming weekend, with Miami, San Francisco and two dates against Dallas lurking. There’s an outside chance that Washington could sneak into the playoffs given that the NFC is weak and frail beyond three teams and the NFC South champion, but would that save Rivera’s job? Should it?
The larger issue is how Washington will treat the next two and a half precious seasons of Howell’s rookie contract. Already, the Commanders have beefed up the offensive line, and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is scheming up plays to get the ball out of Howell’s hands faster. The more time he spends vertical, the more time Howell has to use his cannon arm to stretch the field.
“Sam Howell is our future. He’s our quarterback. I feel like we found our quarterback for the next 5-10 years, and I truly believe that,” defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said after Sunday’s game. “Not only does he make great plays on the field, but his demeanor after bad plays and not playing well. He is always able to bounce back.”
For his part, Howell is — publicly, at least — keeping his head down and his eyes focused on the turf in front of him. “I want to be the quarterback here for a really long time,” he said following Sunday’s victory over the Patriots. “How I’m going to get to that point is taking it one day at a time and doing everything that I can on a day-to-day basis.”
On a broader scale, like Trevor Lawrence and Russell Wilson before him, Howell can sling it for much acclaim and little (relative) pay while the team builds up around him. Making Washington a destination franchise once again would be worth whatever Howell’s eventual extension might cost.
If Washington’s new regime wants to convince its fans that it’s not the same-old, same-old, spending wisely during Howell’s cheap years would be a great way to start.