On a rep during this week's joint practice session against the Baltimore Ravens, Howell executed a run-pass option perfectly. He froze the safety with his footwork, made the right decision to throw the ball and then delivered an accurate strike to receiver Jahan Dotson -- just beyond the fingertips of Baltimore’s diving safety Kyle Hamilton -- allowing him to gain yards after the catch.
It was one play in one practice session, but it summed up Howell’s improvement and what the Commanders like so much about his game.
It’s also why he has maintained his grip on the No. 1 job through the spring and training camp, with the team officially announcing Friday that he will start the season opener.
When asked earlier what he’d need to see from Howell before making the job officially his, Washington coach Ron Rivera said, “Continue what he’s shown.” In other words, Rivera and his staff have seen nothing that would cost him the job at this point.
Howell has taken almost every first-team rep since the spring and has given Washington no reason to open up a competition between him and backup Jacoby Brissett.
“I’ve been pleased with what I’ve done,” Howell said, noting that he's not focused on receiving any official designation.
“It really doesn’t matter to me as far as when,” he said. “I'm confident in my abilities. I know I can go out there and play well and be successful and give my team a chance to win.”
Rivera had previously pointed to the past week as a crucial step to measure Howell’s growth. That period started with the Commanders' preseason game against the Cleveland Browns last Friday (he completed 9 of 12 passes for 77 yards and a touchdown in three series of work), followed on Tuesday and Wednesday by the joint practice sessions in Baltimore.
What they saw during this stretch, Rivera said, was a continuation of what Howell has shown since the spring workouts started -- command in the huddle, getting the team to the line of scrimmage in good time, helping with protection calls, making proper signals and calls to the receivers.
“He did it well in the first preseason game; he's done it well throughout camp,” Rivera said. “Probably the biggest thing that I'm really pleased about has been his decision-making, and that has been a big plus.”
Washington was happy with what Howell showed against Baltimore on the first day in particular.
“His ball placement was really good. His decision-making was exceptionally good, and he delivered on time for the most part,” Rivera said. “When he scrambled around a little bit, his eyes were downfield. He was able to find guys and make those kinds of throws and plays that you need to.”
The Commanders wanted him to make quicker decisions in the red zone, trusting what he sees. Howell has done a good job taking care of the ball, which perhaps led to some extra caution against the Ravens inside the 20-yard line.
But he also showed a lot of what Washington likes in other full-team work. During a two-minute drill Wednesday, he was flushed from the pocket and started to sprint to his right. Keeping his eyes downfield, Howell spotted tight end John Bates over the middle. So, Howell abruptly stopped and delivered an accurate throw for an approximate 10-yard gain.
Another time, facing a blitz, as Howell backpedaled away from pressure, he connected over the middle with receiver Terry McLaurin -- a relationship that continues to grow.
“He’s really poised, man,” McLaurin said. “He sees the field really well, and he's going to give us a chance to make opportunities on the perimeter, which has been great. His timing was really good with us [Tuesday]. As soon as we were getting out of our breaks, all of the receivers, the ball was right there, and it gave us a chance to run with it as well.
“Even when he had to improvise and roll out a little bit, [he managed] to still keep his eyes downfield and continue to give us the chance to make plays.”
Veteran corner Kendall Fuller said during practice this summer that Howell has tested him. Fuller recalled a recent deep out Howell threw in practice that, he said, “pisses me off” because it was completed.
However, he also liked seeing Howell “put those throws in spots that DBs can't get it.”
“That's what separates, a lot of times, college from the NFL: Quarterbacks can put the ball to where a defensive back -- no matter how good the coverage is -- you just can't get to it,” Fuller said. “So, to see him just have the confidence to make those type of throws, it’s been good to see.”
On occasion, Rivera said Howell will make throws in practice just to test what he possibly can -- and can’t -- do in a game.
It’s been quite a journey for Howell ever since the 2022 draft, when he fell to the fifth round after being projected as a likely second- or third-round pick. He was Washington’s No. 3 quarterback at this time a year ago, with the coaches focusing heavily on his footwork in the run and pass games. Howell started the season finale, completing 11 of 19 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown and running for another score in a 26-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys.
Howell, of course, is not a finished product. He’s learning new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy’s offense. They still work with him on the tempo of some of his drops, for example. They’ll point out when he can stick with a receiver for another moment. They’ll remind him it’s OK to settle for shorter gains rather than waiting for bigger ones. It’s a normal growth pattern for a young quarterback.
“I’m just more confident in the offense and way more comfortable out there calling the plays and knowing what we’re trying to accomplish with the play,” Howell said. “I’m in a really good place mentally with what [Bieniemy]’s trying to do, and we’re on the same page. It’s a lot of fun going out there now. I’m just kind of playing instinctive. There’s not much thinking going on.”
Last week Bieniemy said he, too, has seen Howell stop overthinking.
“I've seen the growth,” Bieniemy said. “You can see when he's confident, he's coming off the mound releasing that ball. It's a thing of beauty. It's been fun watching this growth process.”