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Practice notes | Inside Rivera's decision to let Howell 'take a breath,' learn from Brissett


The Washington Commanders will have a new starting quarterback, at least for the next week.

Commanders head coach Ron Rivera announced Wednesday morning that veteran Jacoby Brissett, who has played well in the team's last two games, will start in Week 17 against the San Francisco 49ers in place of **Sam Howell**. The decision came after five weeks of the offense and Howell struggling against some of the league's best defenses, the most recent being the New York Jets.

Despite the stumbles in his development, the Commanders still believe in Howell. Rivera said that what has happened over the last month doesn't change how he looks at the quarterback's future. But after going through the roughest part of his budding career, he does think sitting for at least the team's next matchup can do Howell some good.

"I think this is probably a good opportunity for Sam to take a break," Rivera said. "This is about Sam's continued development and things hadn't gone as well as we'd like for him the last few weeks. We just think this is a good opportunity for him to watch."

It's hard to pin down one reason why Howell has struggled over the last five weeks, because there are several that have led to Rivera's decision to bench him. Certainly, the fact that Washington is going through its toughest stretch of the season has something to do with it. Since Thanksgiving, the Commanders have played against the Dallas Cowboys (7th in yards allowed), Miami Dolphins (4th) and Jets (3rd). With the San Francisco 49ers (11th) and a rematch with Dallas up next to close out the year, it isn't going to get any easier. 

The number of times Howell has been hit (he's been sacked a league-leading 60 times) can't be discounted, either. There was a time when he seemed to be improving in that area by getting the ball out quicker and rolling out of the pocket to avoid pressure. Against the Jets, however, it seemed like he was rolling out of clean pockets, which often led to incompletions.

In the first half of the season, Howell showed promise with his ball placement, poise in the pocket and a willingness to take shots downfield. But moments where those traits shine have come less frequently over the last month. The last two weeks have been particularly frustrating for Howell. He had just 68 completed air yards against the Los Angeles Rams, which was a career low for him. Against the Jets, he had five.

"Obviously, [it was] disappointing, it is what it is," Howell said in the locker room. "I think at the end of the day, I just gotta play better. I'm just gonna try to do whatever I can, continue to get better these last two weeks and try to learn as much as I can while watching Jacoby play, support him and try to be a good teammate."

Difficult stretches are common for every player. Last week, Eric Bieniemy said that Patrick Mahomes would "see ghosts" on the field, which led to him being indecisive at times. Bieniemy is seeing some of that with Howell.

"It's unfortunate that it happens, but the thing that he needs to continue to do is continue working through it and continue trusting his gut and his instinct and all the fundamentals that he's been taught," Bieniemy said. 

The difference was more apparent when Brissett stepped in for Howell and made the Commanders more competitive against the Rams and Jets. The concepts Brissett and the offense ran weren't any different from what was being run with Howell at quarterback, but the unit was more functional because Brissett was able to dissect coverage, stand in the pocket and take what was given to him. 

A good example of Brissett managing the offense came during his second touchdown drive against the Jets. Only one of his five completions went more than 12 yards, and that was only because Terry McLaurin slipped a tackle and turned the pass into a 29-yard gain. Half of Brissett's 100 yards for the day were gained after the catch.

And when it was time to make explosive plays, Brissett aired out passes to his best players. Both of McLaurin's catches in the final minutes of the fourth quarter came after he had beaten his defender in man coverage, and Brissett immediately picked up on it. 

The Commanders believe that Howell could benefit from watching Brissett and how he operates the offense, whether it's just for one game or the full season. Brissett has also been willing to provide that information to Howell, fulfilling the goal he had of being a good teammate to the young quarterback when he signed with Washington in March.

The ability to mentor Howell is part of the reason why Rivera has been so impressed with Brissett.

"It's amazing to watch the professionalism in which Jacoby does things," Rivera said. "I think what we've seen in the last two weeks is just him being there and studying along with Sam. I think it really has helped him as well. I see Jacoby as a very viable player in this league."

And Howell knows there's a lot to learn from Brissett, who has been in the NFL and won games a starter for eight seasons. It's a good opportunity, Howell said, for him to watch how Brissett goes through the week of preparation and see how he handles himself.

Whatever Howell does learn, he can add it to what he's already gained from being around Brissett.

"He's always had my back, man," Howell said. "He's been a really good teammate, really good friend to me, and I couldn't imagine a better person to have beside me."

Rivera hasn't decided whether Brissett will start for the season finale against the Cowboys, but he doesn't doubt that Howell will approach the situation with a positive attitude. Howell is a competitor and of course he wants to play. At the same time, Rivera feels like it'll be good for Howell to "take a breath."

"I think there's some moments where he's had to take a couple lumps, but he's a resilient player, a solid young man who I think has a bright future in this league," Rivera said. "I think he's a guy who can play quarterback in the NFL and do it well and do it at a high level."

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