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Practice notes | Inside the relationship between Sam Howell and Eric Bieniemy

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Learning how to read Sam Howell’s stoicism on the field can be a subtle art, but by now, assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has developed a knack for what goes through the young quarterback's head.

"He's never going to let you see that frustration come out in him," Bieniemy said Nov. 16. "In fact, he'd be a great poker player."

Much of the Washington Commanders' progress on offense this season has depended on Howell and Bieniemy figuring out how each other tick. The two make an interesting pair. Howell, is even keeled and doesn't let anything, positively or otherwise, sway his emotions, while you can often hear Bieniemy before you see him as he yells out personnel groupings, pushes players to "finish!" and doesn't shy away from telling them exactly what they did wrong and how they need to fix it.

And yet, despite the obvious personality differences, Howell and Bieniemy have developed a growing chemistry during their first season together that has helped the offense show promise of something that could grow with time. That bond revolves around a mutual respect for what each other brings to the unit and, most importantly, a hatred of losing.

"He's grown as a leader, as an OC throughout the season as he's done probably his whole career," Howell said. "He's just gotten better every single week and he continues to work so hard, so it's fun to play for him."

Washington's offense hasn't had a complete turnaround from last season, when the unit was 20th in yards per game (330.3), but it has been a noticeable one with Howell at quarterback and Bieniemy calling plays. With five games left, the Commanders are 14th in yards and ninth in passing with Howell leading the league in the category.

Of course, that improvement has come with growing pains as Howell gets a firmer grasp on Bieniemy's offense and Bieniemy learns more about how to call games with Howell under center. Howell has shown promise -- Bieniemy has seen growth "every single week," even when the results aren't favorable -- but he's also shown that he's still a young quarterback less than a season's worth of starts under his belt.

Two weeks ago against the Seattle Seahawks, for example, Howell gave up a fumble after a gain on a read option play because he tried to fight for extra yards, rather than giving himself up. With the Commanders in a tight game and trying to climb out of a four-point deficit, it was a possession they could not afford to lose.

As upset as Bieniemy was on the sideline, he had to remind himself -- just as he's had to do for most of the season -- that every week presents a new experience for Howell to learn how to overcome.

"He's out in the middle of the field, he's running, he's doing everything he can to help us to win," Bieniemy said. "Poor kid gets held up and they take the ball from him … Do you want him to stop making plays? Nah, you want to encourage him to be himself and to continue bringing out that competitor in him, because that's the fire and that's the passion that we want."

It also helps that Howell is often aware of his mistakes not long after he makes them. He called his interception against the New England Patriots, when his attempt at throwing the ball away went straight into the hands of a Patriots defender, the worst of his career. 

Bieniemy joked that he "blacked out" after that interception, but he didn't have a dramatic reaction because Howell knew what he had done was the wrong choice.

"He knew he made a mistake, and the kid knew and there was nothing else that needed to be said because not only did he have to face me, but more importantly he had to face his teammates," Bieniemy said. "He's a better player than that. He made a mistake. It's unfortunate, but those are the things that are needed to help the growth process."

Howell knows that Bieniemy is doing whatever possible to put him in the best position to succeed. Bieniemy has asked for Howell's feedback on plays since they first started working together, and the quarterback has been enthusiastic about giving his opinions. 

He also appreciates that Bieniemy is willing to ask for them.

"It's fun to play for a coach that values your opinion," Howell said. "But going into every game, we always talk about every single call that's on the call sheet, whether I like it, whether I don't like it, what situation I like it in and he respects my opinion. As a quarterback, that's all you can want."

Check out the top photos of the Washington Commanders getting back to work to prepare for their Week 13 matchup against the Miami Dolphins. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)

The two also sit next to each other during installation period to discuss certain concepts or play that they want to run. 

"On top of that, I'm always talking to him on the headset so there's constant communication," Bieniemy said. "The kid is a great kid."

Besides the fact that his quarterback "likes to throw the ball deep," Bieniemy said with a chuckle, he's also learned a lot about Howell's personality.

"The thing that I love about him, he's a quiet, humble, resilient kid," Bieniemy said. "The kid has some stuff to him. I love what he brings to the table on and off the field."

On the field, Howell's improvements have been more consistent in the Commanders' most recent stretch of games. He's thrown for at least 300 yards in four of the last five contests; he's taken fewer sacks; and he's built a better understanding of NFL defenses.

"Then you talk him through it, and then he hits the reset button, and he autocorrects. But he's doing a great job of communicating," Bieniemy said.

And Howell can tell that Bieniemy is starting to get into a groove as a play-caller.

"I think lately he's been calling games really, really well and I think he's starting to get a really good feel for how to be successful with the talent that we have here," Howell said. "I just think I've seen him get better and better each and every week."

Howell and Bieniemy are going to be tested for the final five games on the Commanders' schedule. The defenses they will face -- the Dolphins, Jets, 49ers and Cowboys -- are all considered to be among the best in the league and stingiest in terms of giving up points.

As promising as things have been, Howell and Bieniemy know they need to keep pushing to improve their rapport.

"Obviously, he's done a tremendous job so far," Bieniemy said, "but, we still got a lot of season left, and we want to continue to grow in the right direction."

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