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'He did the things he needed to do': Inside Rivera's decision to name Howell Commanders' starting QB


Sam Howell has operated as the Washington Commanders' de facto starting quarterback since June, and yes, it was expected by many that Ron Rivera would proclaim the job as his for Week 1 at some point in training camp. 

The conversation Howell and Rivera had about the decision was a short one, but it was still a significant moment for the young quarterback. 

"To hear those words come from him, it means a lot. He's a great guy, great coach," Howell said after Friday's practice. "He's been around the game for a long time, so just to have his support and his confidence in me means a lot." 

The job was always Howell's to lose in Rivera's mind, but there were some things that he wanted to see from the 2022 fifth-round pick before making that decision. Most of that centered around growth, whether it was in the pocket, in the huddle or as a leader. While the signs were there, Rivera needed to see Howell consistently execute while competing with veteran Jacoby Brissett. 

Howell overcame each obstacle placed in front of him, and that removed any doubt from Rivera's mind. 

"He did the things that he needed to do, and he showed the growth that I was looking for," Rivera said.

In many ways, Howell is the same person he was back in January when he suited up for his first career start in the Dallas Cowboys. He's still confident in his ability to perform and help his team win, and his teammates are still impressed with his leadership, despite being a second-year player.

"He's really poised, man," Terry McLaurin said after Tuesday's practice with the Ravens. "I think he sees the field really well, and he's going to give us chance to make opportunities on the perimeter, which has been great.

But Howell has ascended throughout camp, and he can feel the difference in his game. His ball placement has improved, shown by his ability to deliver throws in tight coverage to McLaurin and the rest of the Commanders' pass-catchers, and his decision-making has taken positive steps in the second half of camp as he learned what he can -- and can't -- do directing the offense.

The biggest cause for all those strides: Howell's comfort level across the board has risen rapidly over the past year.

"I have a year under my belt," Howell said. "I didn't play the whole year but just being here that year and learning so much, I feel like I've learned so much from a mental standpoint."

Howell's poise under center is where that has shown itself the most. He's felt good about his place in Eric Bieniemy’s system for some time now -- he said at the start of camp that he has total command of the scheme compared to OTAs -- but his credence in the offense has risen to higher levels in recent weeks.

And that permeates into every aspect of Howell's skill set.

"I'm confident in the offense, I'm confident in my teammates, and I'm confident in the system," Howell said. "When I'm confident in all those types of things, I can just go out there and just be myself and play free and play fast. I feel like that's what I've been doing the past few weeks."

In Howell, the Commanders have a quarterback who can open up the offense's potential. His arm strength has been one of his biggest traits since his days at North Carolina, and judging by his deep shot to McLaurin during Friday's seven-on-seven drill, that is still a card Howell can pull when necessary.

But Howell can also execute the short and intermediate throws, which look to be more pivotal features of the Commanders' system, with players like Jahan Dotson and Logan Thomas benefiting from his quick trigger.

"The quick game is awesome," Howell said. "I love that part of the offense that we have. It makes my job easy, getting the ball out of my hands fast and we have some really good weapons on the outside. That's a way to get the ball in their hands really fast."

That was on display in the joint practices with the Ravens -- a major test for Howell's progress -- as Howell calmly distributed the ball to his targets while avoiding pressure and keeping his eyes upfield.

Of course, Howell wasn't perfect. Rivera wanted to see him get the ball out quicker at some points, particularly early in the first practice. Howell was competing against another team in practice for the first time, so the safety of the whistle wasn't something he could rely on throughout the day.

But Howell adjusted and improved as the day progressed. That ability to self-correct his mistakes has impressed Rivera since his first start against the Cowboys in Week 18, and he has seen that from Howell throughout the offseason.

"I was really thrilled with the growth we saw," Rivera said. "And then [we] come in, start training camp, and you just start seeing them having day after day, you know, the good and lows, highs. And then there were a couple of practices that we had which were exceptional."

The Washington Commanders finished up their time in Owings Mills, Maryland, with their second practice and against the Ravens. Check out the best photos from Wednesday morning.

Howell has never been concerned with the process Rivera had in naming a starter. He's been focused on his growth since June, and he believed that if he performed up to his standard, everything would take care of itself.

That's exactly what happened, and Howell doesn't intend on changing up anything now that he's officially the starter.

"I've learned kind of who my guys are on offense are this year, and I think by learning who they are, I can lead them how I need to lead them," Howell said. "I think I've done a good job of that, and I'll continue to do that."

In fact, his main concern is what will come next.

"I know this is only the beginning. I know I have a lot of work in front of me, and that's what I'm focused on right now."

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