ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Commanders have come close to finding their franchise quarterback in the past. Too often, though, fate has intervened in a cruel way -- whether from injuries or contract messes. In 2019, one play -- and two yards -- eventually cost the organization a shot at Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow at No. 1 overall.
Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen has lived through multiple what-if scenarios involving quarterbacks since being drafted in 2017: Alex Smith's injury; finishing with the second overall pick instead of the first; and bypassing what turned out to be two quality starters.
"For the first time I feel we have it in Sam," Allen said. "He has the arm talent to make any throw, he has the mindset. He's a leader. He doesn't get caught up in what the media says, he doesn't let a game or bad stretch of games affect him. He's able to bounce back. With Sam you always feel like you have a chance."
Of the five quarterbacks who have started at least 10 games since 2018, Howell has the highest QBR at 49.6. This season, he ranks 10th in touchdown passes with 18, first in passing yards with 3,339 yards -- though he's played in one more game than all but three quarterbacks -- and is tied for most interceptions with 13.
After losing 45-10 to the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. said there had been some regression this season. Then he pointed to the locker stall about 20 feet across from him -- the one belonging to Howell -- and said, "That's a f---ing huge improvement."
The franchise needs to make sure Howell doesn't become the organization's latest what-if. There's been a string of them in the past dozen years that helps explain why Washington has had no playoff wins and just three winning seasons.
Here are some of the biggest what-ifs during that span.
What if Robert Griffin III had lasted?
The situation: Griffin won the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award and earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2012, throwing for 3,200 yards, 20 touchdown passes to five interceptions. He rushed for another 815 yards and seven scores. Before the season, coach Mike Shanahan said Griffin had the chance to become a transcendent player.
What happened: Griffin tore the ACL, LCL and meniscus in his right knee in a playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Reports of tension between Griffin and some of the offensive coaches surfaced during the offseason and into the next season.
The result: Griffin was unable to duplicate his rookie year success. He did return for the start of the 2013 season -- proclaiming in the offseason he was "All in for Week 1" --but struggled. With the team 3-10, Griffin was benched for the final three games, with Shanahan saying they wanted him to hit the offseason healthy.
Shanahan was fired at the end of the season, replaced by Jay Gruden. It didn't help. Injuries and performance limited him to seven starts in 2014 and, after suffering a concussion in the 2015 preseason, coaches turned to Kirk Cousins. Griffin did not play for Washington again and was released after the season.
Griffin, though, proved to be an electric addition in 2012, leading the team to seven consecutive wins to close the regular season and leading many to dream of future greatness for the organization.
"I think back to that seven-game stretch and what the offense was doing with him at the helm, what it allowed the offense to be," said former Washington tight end Logan Paulsen, now an analyst employed by the team. "I've thought about it. There was a period of time where I was like, 'This is the future of the NFL. We're going to be a perennial playoff team and it starts with Robert and what he does for this offense.' I've thought about it quite a bit."
What if Kirk Cousins stuck around?
The situation: Cousins started every game from 2015 to 2017. During that period he threw 81 touchdown passes to 36 interceptions. He's the only quarterback in franchise history to post three consecutive seasons with 20 or more touchdown passes. It's the only time the team has recorded three consecutive years of 20-plus touchdown passes, regardless of quarterback. Washington won the NFC East with a 9-7 record in 2015 and was 15-16-1 the following two years combined, missing the playoffs on the final day of the 2016 season.
What happened: Cousins became a free agent after the 2015 season. Washington failed to sign Cousins to a long-term deal and placed the franchise tag on him for 2016. It did so again in 2017.
The result: Gruden said they should have traded Cousins during the 2017 offseason, knowing he would not re-sign and that they'd only receive a third-round compensatory pick the following year. Team president Bruce Allen said late that spring they offered Cousins a deal worth $53 million guaranteed. Cousins received a deal worth $84 million guaranteed from the Minnesota Vikings after the season.
Meanwhile, Cousins, who is out for the season with an Achilles' tear, has thrown 171 touchdown passes since leaving Washington -- second only to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the last six years -- and 58 more than Washington during this time.
"Kirk's age and what he's done and how much he was improving, it was a no-brainer to keep him," Gruden said. "If he didn't want to come back, then you have to get something for him. This is a hot commodity. For us to get a conditional third is one of the worst things in the history of the NFL."
What if Alex Smith doesn't get hurt?
The situation: Washington traded for Smith in the offseason, allowing Cousins to leave via free agency. The team was 6-3 and in first place in the NFC East entering a home game against the Houston Texans.
What happened: Early in the third quarter against Houston, Smith was sacked and suffered a broken tibia and fibula of his right leg -- ending his season and threatening his career.
The result: Washington lost to Houston, 23-21, the first of four consecutive defeats. Backup quarterback Colt McCoy broke his leg in his second start. Washington then started Mark Sanchez for one game and Josh Johnson for three. It finished 7-9. Gruden was fired five games into the 2019 season.
"Probably the only what if that I've ever done was Alex in 2018," said Washington punter Tress Way, who joined the team in 2015. "That was the year I really remember Alex's demeanor, how we were winning games. And that was the first time in my career up to that point where we were going into games expecting to win. It was just, 'hey, we're going to find a way to win.' And it was my first time getting to play with a veteran established winning quarterback."
Washington coach Ron Rivera has told people if Smith hadn't been hurt, he'd have never taken over for Gruden because the team would have still been winning.
"I believe that's the case," Gruden said. "I don't know if we were Super Bowl caliber, but we were pretty competitive on both sides of the ball.
"You feel good about Alex. I'm sure we would have been looking for a quarterback in the draft if Alex had stayed healthy and do what [Chiefs coach] Andy Reid did -- try to develop one under Alex. He's such a good mentor. That's a perfect scenario."
What if they lost to Miami in 2019?
The situation: Washington and Miami were both 0-5 in their Oct. 13 matchup in Florida. Washington had fired Gruden the previous week, replacing him with Bill Callahan on an interim basis.
What happened: With six seconds left, the Dolphins cut the score to 17-16 and opted to go for a 2-point conversion. But quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's receiver screen pass was dropped -- it was well-defended regardless -- and Washington's players celebrated its first win of the season. Callahan received the game ball.
The result: Washington finished the season 3-13, earning the second overall pick in the draft. The Cincinnati Bengals, at 2-14, owned the top pick. The Bengals selected Burrow; Washington took defensive end Chase Young.
Had Washington lost to Miami -- and the season unfolded the same way -- it would have tied the Bengals. Because Washington's strength of schedule was easier -- the tiebreaker for draft position -- it would have had the top pick. According to a team source at the time, Washington would have drafted Burrow even with quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who they drafted in the first round the previous year, on the roster. Regardless, they would have had more options.
"The thing that's tough for fans is they say, 'We're not going to the playoffs, tank to get the best pick you possibly can,'" Jonathan Allen said. "It does make sense but in doing that guys are giving up their jobs. I couldn't care less where we draft; I'm trying to win every game. So we were ecstatic. You never know how it turns out. If we lose that game maybe we're more motivated. But anytime you win you're excited."
What if they had drafted Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert?
The situation: Washington owned the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft, but had selected quarterback Dwayne Haskins in the first round the previous season. Tagovailoa and Herbert were considered the best quarterbacks after Burrow. According to multiple sources, there was no consensus among Washington's decision makers about the other two quarterbacks, though one source said more leaned towards Herbert.
What happened: Washington selected Young out of Ohio State. The team had considered trading out of the No. 2 pick, but multiple sources said the only legitimate offer came from the Atlanta Falcons, who owned the 17th pick. The other teams in the top 10 did not express interest in moving up. Also, multiple sources said Washington's new staff -- with Rivera at the helm -- wanted to make it work with Haskins, who had finished 2019 with two strong games.
The result: Young earned NFL defensive rookie of the year honors with 7.5 sacks, 10 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries -- including one for a touchdown. But he only played nine games the following season after tearing his right ACL and ruptured his patellar tendon. Young played three games in 2022, the team declined his fifth-year option and traded him to the San Francisco 49ers in October. Meanwhile, since 2020, Herbert has thrown 114 touchdown passes -- fourth most in the NFL. Over the past two years, Tagovailoa has thrown 47 touchdown passes, tied for fourth most in the league.
Though Young was ESPN senior draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s top-rated player that season, he said, "If the quarterback is right there with another player, you've got to get the quarterback if you don't have one. That's an easy decision to make."