LANDOVER, Md. -- The Washington Commanders have raved about quarterback Sam Howell’s calm demeanor, his confidence and his ability to forget about bad plays -- or games. Each one of those aspects will be tested this week.
Howell, who had won his first three NFL starts and provided hope for a franchise in search of consistency at quarterback, will need to rebound off his worst game. And he’ll have to do it at Philadelphia on Sunday.
In a 37-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Howell was intercepted four times and sacked nine times. In three games he has been sacked 19 times, a mixture of his own indiscretions and poor protection.
When the Commanders opted for Howell, a fifth-round pick in 2022, as the starter they knew he’d endure rough days. It’s part of the process for a young quarterback. Sunday qualified as a rough day – and then some.
“It’s football, it’s going to happen,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “There aren’t a lot of guys that are going to go out there and always have success. You got to learn and grow and you learn from the losses as well as you’re learning from the wins. That’s why we’ve just got to stick to it.”
It’s not as if Howell was flawless in his previous starts, including in the 2022 season finale. But he would follow a bad play with a good series.
He turned the ball over three times in those games; he followed those up with a strong drive -- even if they didn’t all result in points. One ended with a field goal; another when running back Antonio Gibson fumbled in the red zone and a third in a missed field goal.
But, Sunday, bad followed bad. On three of his interceptions, the ensuing drive ended in a punt. They got the ball back with 19 seconds left in the first half after the other one and ran one play.
“Obviously a lot of things didn’t go right and it starts with me,” Howell said. “The good thing is, the sun will come up tomorrow.”
But Washington’s pass protection issues do not stem from Howell alone. There are times he can help himself by getting rid of the ball sooner. He could have avoided a sack on Washington’s first drive by getting the ball to receiver Dyami Brown, a checkdown option in the right flat. Instead, Howell was sacked at the Bills’ 33 for an 8-yard loss on first down. Another sack was followed by an interception and a promising drive was ruined.
There were plenty of times, however, that the line -- and backs -- did not help enough in protection, resulting in sacks or poor pockets or perhaps the receivers weren’t open when Howell was ready to throw.
“It was a tough day for all of us,” receiver Terry McLaurin said. “It's not just on him, but I just want to let him know that we got his back.
“Each guy is going to have ups and downs and peaks and valleys, but the best ones are able to not make the same mistakes twice.”
Howell has been pressured on 36.6% of his passes, fourth highest in the league. And that has been done while facing rushes of five defenders or more only 20.3% of the time, third lowest in the NFL. He has been hit on 26.2% of his passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information; only seven quarterbacks have been hit more often.
“Sam’s a great quarterback and a tough kid,” Washington offensive tackle Andrew Wylie said. “We’ve got to do a better job keeping him upright and getting him that extra tick. He’s a baller. He’s trying to make plays. That’s what we need out of him.”
But that extra tick helped Buffalo. Bills defensive end AJ Epenesa, who returned an interception for a touchdown, said they could make Howell uncomfortable by making him read a play just a little longer.
“He’s still learning a little bit,” Epenesa said, “whether it’s the disguises of the defense or recognizing coverages. His thought process or whatever that is to make him take another second to break it down that’s our chance.”
Or, as Bills defensive tackle Jordan Phillips said, “If he doesn’t see something most of the time he’ll just hold the ball and he’ll run. It’s just growing pains.”
Howell’s time in the pocket ranks 15th in the NFL at 2.48 seconds as does his time before throwing. Sunday, his interceptions often came from trying to make a big play and needing a pinpoint throw.
“I gave up some situations where I was trying to get the ball out of my hands and trying to avoid a negative play,” Howell said. “I just kind of forced something. It wasn’t a good decision. Just all those bad plays. I’ll learn from it; I’ll be better from it.”
Rivera said at times for Howell it’s a combination of trying to make a big play and seeing too much. At times, Rivera said, Howell might see an opponent flash into his vision and thinks he can’t make the throw -- but by the time he gets to another option it
“And then now he tries to go somewhere else and it's a little too late,” Rivera said. “He's just got to continue to learn and grow and get through this.”
It’s also true that Howell has extended plays that have resulted in scores. Other times he has hung in the pocket, held the safety with his eyes and thrown for a touchdown on a longer developing play. They like that part of Howell.
“We want him to continue with the clock in his head but at the same time we don’t want him to miss opportunities if they’re there,” Rivera said. “And then up front we’d like to hold our blocks a little longer.”
Howell has impressed the coaches and players enough in those first three starts -- and in what they’ve seen in practice or meetings -- that Sunday was, to them, an aberration. After all, in those first three starts Howell threw four touchdown passes to two interceptions. He helped lead two fourth-quarter comebacks in the first two games this season.
“He's a true competitor,” Wylie said. “Dude's a warrior out there, took some bits, got right back up, continued to sling that thing. So we're going to keep battling for our guy.”
Washington wasn’t ready to proclaim its longtime quarterback search over after his first three starts; the Commanders aren’t going to panic after one bad start.
“The sooner he develops and grows the more opportunities we’re going to get. This is a very young player so there is some leniency with that," Rivera said. "There is a little bit of growing pains we’re going to have to deal with. It’s important that he develops and grows for us. We’re going to give him every opportunity and right now we’re riding with him.”