Commanders' Sam Howell not taking QB1 role for granted

ASHBURN, Va. -- Many pundits wondered whether the Washington Commanders were serious after they quickly named Sam Howell the starting quarterback entering the offseason and, subsequently, training camp.

Howell doesn't worry about it, nor did he pay attention to what was said -- outside of receiving messages from friends about his Madden rating of 66.

"I know some people might think it's crazy because of how the draft went and I hardly played at all last year," Howell said Wednesday. "But it doesn't change anything for me. I know the type of player I can be in this league. I worked hard to put myself in position to succeed. I could care less what other people say. It's about what I hear in this building."

And what they say in the building remains positive about a young quarterback they hope to build around.

"It's not something I take for granted," said Howell, who was taken in the fifth round of the 2022 draft. "There's a lot of work to be done. I still have to earn it."

A team source said before the draft that the Commanders would have targeted Howell in the second or third round had they not traded for Carson Wentz.

Howell served as Washington's third quarterback until Wentz broke his finger in Week 6, elevating Howell to the backup role behind new starter Taylor Heinicke.

Howell started the season finale vs. the Dallas Cowboys, and he completed 11 of 19 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown and an interception in a 26-6 victory. He also ran for a score.

Shortly after the season, coach Ron Rivera said Howell would be the starter entering the offseason -- maintaining that stance after signing veteran free agent Jacoby Brissett. And, as camp began Wednesday under the watchful eye of new owner Josh Harris, Howell remained the No. 1 guy -- although a lot of work remains. "That's about as big a question as it gets," Rivera said of Howell's progress. "Has Sam grown and developed enough to help us take the next step?"

Howell said he's "light-years ahead" of where he was at this time last season. He and the coaches focused hard on his footwork from the time he arrived; he continued that work in the offseason with private coach Anthony Boone. To help learn new coordinator Eric Bieniemy's playbook, Howell would call out the plays into his phone and play it back so he could hear how he sounded, wanting it to sound authoritative in the huddle.

"I feel I've gotten a lot better," Howell said. "I'm more confident in the system, more comfortable in the system. When [Bieniemy] calls a play, I don't have to think about it. I know exactly what it is and what my job is."

Said tight end Logan Thomas: "Now in the huddle he doesn't have any hesitation. He spits it out with confidence."

To help prepare for camp, Brissett organized a trip to Fort Lauderdale last week with Howell and several teammates, including receiver Terry McLaurin.

Washington will have a new starting quarterback for the sixth straight year since parting ways with Kirk Cousins after the 2017 season. In Rivera's three seasons, the Commanders have started eight quarterbacks.

If Howell clicks, it would give the Commanders a starting quarterback on a rookie contract for three seasons. If he doesn't, the Commanders would be forced to start over -- again.

Rivera points to moments in the Dallas game as reasons for optimism, from how Howell self-corrected after a mistake to how he handled various coverages.

"How he handled things, how he changed things on his own and some of his decision-making," Rivera said. "Those are the things you want to see that tells you he is growing and he's getting it. We're kind of nitpicking almost to make sure he's doing those things."

On Wednesday, Howell once more showed good timing and a solid arm. Washington just needs it to continue.

"He's being a leader, being vocal, putting guys where they need to be," running back Antonio Gibson said. "He looks fine. I'm excited about this year for him. He's going to be great."