The biggest question the Washington Commanders needed to answer this season was whether fifth-round pick Sam Howell could provide long-term answers to the quarterback uncertainty that has existed in Washington for two decades. At times, especially earlier in the year, it seemed like the carousel was at least slowing down with Howell producing more good than bad.
However, it seems like Howell has hit a wall in his development. Over the last four games, Howell has thrown six interceptions compared to two touchdowns, completed just 56.8% of his passes and thrown for 785 yards. After completing 11-of-26 passes for 102 yards against the Rams, he was pulled in the fourth quarter with Jacoby Brissett finishing the game.
Howell will remain the team's starter, but in a season where everything is a lesson, coach Ron Rivera and the Commanders are hoping that he will grow from the experience.
"Just wasn't good enough," Howell said. "I got to play better, got to execute better. So, it is what it is. I know I'm not defined by this one game or anything like that."
Check out the top photos of the Washington Commanders preparing for their Christmas Eve matchup against the New York Jets.
The Commanders' offense had been struggling for weeks prior to playing the Rams in Los Angeles, partly because of how difficult this stretch of the season has been. It seems like a lifetime ago that Washington was seconds away forcing overtime against the Seattle Seahawks with Howell throwing three touchdowns and completing 66% of his passes.
As Howell has struggled, so has the Commanders' offense. While opposing offenses have had their way against the Commanders as they have for most of the season, Washington has done little to keep up. Over the last three weeks, they've averaged the eighth fewest points per game (15). They've failed to score more than 20 points since their matchup against the Seahawks on Nov. 12.
However, there were sparks of life when Brissett got on the field. The Commanders only needed five plays to get into the end zone with him under center, and the next time he was one the field, hit Terry McLaurin for a 49-yard gain -- the longest play by a Washington receiver all year.
The biggest difference that Rivera and Howell noticed: Brissett played more freely during the two drives he was out there.
"When in talking with Sam the other day about getting a chance to take a step back and watch Jacoby was that he thought that exactly," Rivera said.
It wasn't a surprise that Brissett ended the day with 124 yards on eight completions. He does have a gunslinger mentality, Rivera said of Brissett, but he's also known for being a "very smart, very savvy football player." And Howell admitted that he learns a lot every time he gets to watch Brissett play.
"He played well. He did a good job," Howell said after the game. "He was dealing football and giving guys a chance."
The hope is that the time on the sideline will give Howell a chance to reset and get back to play the way the team knows he's capable of. It's not as if that talent just went away; Rivera still believes that Howell is the same player who helped the Commanders fight back against the Broncos with 299 yards and two touchdowns and hang with the Philadelphia Eagles.
As the Commanders prepare for their final three opponents, all of which possess top defenses, Rivera wants to see more consistency from Howell.
"It's been a tough few weeks," Rivera said. "We haven't played the way we've wanted as a team. I think again, it is a good opportunity as we just look at them, focus in on them one at a time and play consistent football."
That's a goal that Howell shares. He felt that he "made some of the easy things hard" against the Rams, which is not the expectation he has for himself. His goals to be more consistent are simple: complete more passes, get his completion percentage back up and stay on schedule.
"I could hang in the pocket a little bit more," Howell said. "I think I've bailed out of pocket sometimes where I didn't need to. So, there's just some little things here and there that I know I could do a better job of that'll help me play more efficient football."
His expectations for the final three games are simple as well: just put "good ball on tape."
"I feel like for the most part, I've played some good ball this year and I just got to do it at a more consistent rate," Howell said. "I want to go into these last three games and be really consistent and be really good and just be efficient and give my team a chance to win. I just want to be playing my best football for these last three games."