Sam Howell is on track to set an NFL record this season, and not the good kind.
While Howell has shown promise during the Washington Commanders' first six games by throwing for 1,500 yards and nine touchdowns, he's also being sacked at a rate that is unlike anyone else in league history. He's been sacked 34 times and is projected to finish the year with 96 sacks in 2023, which would shatter the record of 76 set by David Carr in 2002.
The reasons why sacks occur are more nuanced than blaming one player or position group, particularly when the number is that high. Sometimes it's the offensive line; other times the pressure may come for another reason. Either way, the Commanders know it cannot continue at that rate.
"We do talk constantly about lowering the sack total," head coach Ron Rivera said on Wednesday. "Again, that's twofold. That's some things that we can do up front better and some things we can do better as the quarterback."
The number of sacks Howell has taken, whether it's from dominant defensive fronts or units struggling to generate pressure, has been a problem for Washington since the season began. He's been taken down at least four times in every game and at least five times in five games. The apex of that was Week 3 against the Buffalo Bills, when the defense got to Howell nine times, tripling the team's sack total up to that point.
Indeed, it's been an unfortunate trend that teams get a substantial boost when they play Washington. The Chicago Bears had two sacks heading into their game against the Commanders, and they eclipsed that almost three times over by the end of the Thursday Night matchup. In Week 6, the Atlanta Falcons matched their total of five sacks in the previous five games.
Howell has put much of the blame on himself.
"It's tough, but it's just something that I've got to continue to get better at," Howell said. "I think that's the next part of my game where I really need to show growth and development. I feel good about my ability to do that. It's just a matter of going out there in the games and doing it."
He's not wrong, either. He tends to hold onto the ball for too long in the pocket, and when that happens, he either gives the pass rush more time to get to him or runs into the sack himself. Howell said that taking a sack will "kill the drive," and that's true, too. According to ESPN's John Keim, the Commanders have scored a touchdown on just two of the 26 drives where Howell has taken a sack.
And Howell has worked on things he can do to cut down on the sack total. He's put an emphasis on trying to either find an incompletion or throw a pass into the ground. He did exactly that at the end of the first half, when he elected to throw a ball at the feet of the Falcons' defense on third down.
It is clear that Howell, while he may be slightly ahead of his development in some areas, is still learning the game. Figuring out how to limit sacks has just been his toughest lesson.
"He's discovering how to become a professional football player at this level," said offensive coordinator/assistant head coach Eric Bieniemy. "Ideally, we would love for it to be perfect. That's not necessarily the case. The thing that I appreciate about Sam is that all the mistakes that he does make, he shows improvement."
There are other things that Howell can do to avoid sacks besides getting rid of the ball quicker. Bieniemy said he has stressed to Howell that he needs to keep his eyes downfield and scramble to avoid pressure. There were examples of that against the Falcons. On third-and-9 during the Commanders' opening drive, Howell rolled out to his right to find Terry McLaurin for a 22-yard gain.
That's the kind of progress Bieniemy wants to see from Howell.
"As much as you want him to take the giant steps, there's been some good baby steps that he's been taking that's been helping with his process," Bieniemy said. "So ideally, yes, I want him to work on his pocket presence. We're working on that, but I'm not in his shoes."
The players and coaches around Howell can also do more to protect Howell. The offensive line is 13th in pass-block win-rate, but Bieniemy wants to see them continue to improve their protection. The offense could also be better at avoiding first and second down, which would prevent opposing defenses from bringing more pressure on third-and-long plays that require Washington to pass to convert.
"I have to do a better job of calling plays, getting our guys in rhythm," Bieniemy said. "On top of that, our guys got to come out and play with that energy and that same fire and desire. One thing we all know, we're all in this together. So, whatever that is, we have to start fast, we have to start strong."
Washington faces an interesting challenge on Sunday against the Giants' defense. They currently have the fewest sacks in the league, but Wink Martindale is known for bringing pressure to confuse quarterbacks. That could be dangerous, considering Howell's tendency to hold the ball.
Then again, the Giants are 27th in yards allowed this year. If Howell and Washington can get past the blitzes, there should be opportunities to move down the field with ease.
"It's our job to make sure that we're giving the quarterback answers right away," Bieniemy said, "so now he doesn't have to think as much. Now he can go out there, react and play."