It did not take long for Sam Howell to learn what so many Washington Commanders quarterbacks over the years have done before him: get the ball to Terry McLaurin.
Howell, who was tapped as the Commanders' starter for the season finale against a talented Dallas Cowboys defense, had expressed his excitement about working with McLaurin during his Wednesday press conference. He went to the veteran receiver on his first career pass attempt, and it paid off.
Howell's first start went about as well as anyone could have hoped, as McLaurin's 16-yard touchdown, his fifth of the season, gave Washington the lead and set the tone for the rest of the night in a 26-6 victory, giving Washington an 8-8-1 record.
Howell, who finished the night with 169 yards and a 57.9% completion rate, showed off much of what coaches and the fans hoped he would. He was calm under pressure against the eighth-ranked defense against the pass, delivered accurate throws and kept plays alive with his legs. He even flashed off the arm strength that he flaunted at North Carolina, the most notable example being a 52-yard shot to McLaurin.
The only major error the rookie made was an interception into a crowd of Cowboys defenders in the end zone. The game will only be a piece of the team's evaluation of Howell, but either way, it was a solid first impression as a starter.
Howell's teammates deserve some credit as well, because they made sure that he was never forced into difficult situations. Washington's defense, which had struggled without pieces like Kamren Curl and Benjamin St-Juste in previous games, held the Cowboys to just three third down conversions and limited Dak Prescott to 128 yards and an interception.
Meanwhile, the running game managed to put up 151 yards on the ground without its top options, Brian Robinson and Antonio Gibson. Jaret Patterson paced the attack with 78 yards on 17 carries, and Howell got in on the action as well with 35 yards on five scrambles.
The Washington Commanders have begun their 2022 season finale against the Dallas Cowboys. Check out the top photos from the afternoon. (Emilee Fails and Kourtney Carroll/Washington Commanders)
Even Washington's special teams, which has been a strength of the team all season, came up big in early opportunities. After Bryan Anger muffed the snap on Dallas' opening drive, Milo Eifler took the punter down at the Cowboys' 20-yard line, which put Washington in position to take a 7-0 lead with the McLaurin score.
The secondary was filled with mostly younger and depth pieces for Washington, and they consistently bothered and befuddled Prescott. It was Kendall Fuller, however, who provided the best play of the game from the group. After nearly picking off Prescott on a previous play, Fuller hauled in his third interception and took it back to the end zone for a 13-0 lead.
Dallas got on the board in the closing minute of the first half with a 15-yard touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb, but that 77-yard drive ended up being the most explosive bit of action the Cowboys had all night. The 13-6 score held until 1:49 left in the third quarter, when Howell took the ball up the middle and finished the nine-yard run in the end zone.
From there, Washington tacked on two field goals from Joey Slye, ending drives of 56 and 41 yards, giving the team its most offensive points since Nov. 15 against the Philadelphia Eagles, which coincidentally was the Commanders' last division win.
After another three-and-out from Dallas, this time with Cooper Rush in at quarterback, the Cowboys were content to let the clock run out as their fans headed for the exit. And while the win ultimately means nothing for Washington other than finishing the season on a strong note, it was a positive look at what Washington's future could be.