Ron Rivera and Eric Bieniemy had a plan when the Washington Commanders named Sam Howell the starting quarterback back in August: put their faith in him and support him, but don't put too much on his shoulders.
Through the first five games of the Commanders' season, things have not gone exactly as planned for Howell, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Rivera said during his weekly Monday press conference that Howell was "a little bit ahead" where they anticipated he would be at this stage in his development, partly because of how much the Commanders have had to throw the ball to stay competitive in games. Although mistakes have been mixed in with the highlights, Howell has taken the extra responsibilities in stride, even at times adding more credence to the belief that he could be the quarterback of the future.
As the Commanders enter the unofficial "second quarter" of the season, they want to find ways of elevating him while giving him better protection and balancing the offense.
"As he grows and develops and gets better and better, so will we," Rivera said of Howell.
While it's rarely ideal to put so much on a quarterback that only has six NFL starts, it's worth pointing out that Howell has made the most of his situation. As the Commanders begin preparing for the Atlanta Falcons after their disappointing 40-20 loss to the Chicago Bears, Howell is sixth in the league with 1,349 passing yards with a completion percentage that ranks 12th among all quarterbacks (68.6%).
And Howell has drastically outperformed his fellow quarterbacks from the 2022 draft class from a statistical standpoint. Of the three other quarterbacks from that class who had taken snaps this year -- Brock Purdy, Desmond Ridder and Kenny Pickett -- Howell has surpassed all of them, even as much as 300 yards in the cases of Ridder and Pickett.
"You see who he is, you see his grit, you see his toughness, you see his decision making," Rivera said. "Those are all good."
At the same time, an approach that puts Howell in position to throw the ball 191 times, which is the fourth most in the league, is not always conducive to his development. In fairness, it hasn't been intentional.
Because Washington's defense has given up an average of 37 points per game since Week 2, the Commanders have often found themselves behind by double digits early in games. They were down 21-3 to the Denver Broncos before putting together one of the biggest comebacks in franchise history; they found themselves behind as many as 37 points against the Buffalo Bills; and last Thursday, the Bears rushed out to a 17-0 lead before they could muster a response.
The Commanders did match the Philadelphia Eagles point-for-point for most of the afternoon in Week 4, but thanks to a slight relapse in the third quarter of that overtime loss, Washington still had to fight back from a two-score deficit.
Howell has shown the good, and bad, of having a young quarterback as a starter. He looked efficient against the Broncos, delivering accurate throws for 299 yards and two touchdowns. The following week, he was anything but, as he threw four interceptions in an ugly 37-3 loss.
The following week was much better, as he directed the Commanders' offense up and down the field while completing 71% of his passes for 290 yards and supplying the game-tying touchdown with pinpoint accuracy to Jahan Dotson on the final second of regulation.
His teammates also gave him credit for a bounce back performance against a top 10 defense.
"I think that's what he does, honestly," Terry McLaurin said in the locker room. "I think it's because he's such a student of the game. He's a quick learner. He learns from his mistakes. He's still not gonna be a guy who's shy to push the ball down the field … It's really cool to see his maturation process game after game."
It was a little of both on Thursday against the Bears. Howell did throw for a career-high 388 yards and helped pull the Commanders within 10 points of tying the score, but he also threw an interception on a forced pass to Curtis Samuel that led to more points for the Bears.
With the Commanders down 27-3 at halftime, the offense had to essentially abandon the run. They dropped back on 55 consecutive plays, which influenced what was already a high pass-run ratio. Heading into Week 6, the Commanders have passed the ball on 68% of the time, which is the second highest rate in the league.
"That's unfortunate to a degree," Rivera said. "But you do like what he's done and that's one of the things that you really appreciate."
At the same time, Rivera knows that can't continue in order for Washington to get back to .500 and string together some wins.
"That's expediting his development, that's for sure, but we don't want that," Rivera said. "We want to be balanced, we want to be able to run, use play action and drop back passing."
That's still possible with 12 games left, but a few things have to fall into place for that to happen. First, the Commanders defense must find a way to perform up to expectations by avoiding explosive plays and ending drives at an earlier rate. In a month that was full of difficult pills to swallow, last Thursday's game was the worst of it, as DJ Moore put up a career-high 230 receiving yards and three touchdowns to lead the Bears to their first 40-point game in almost two years.
The results had several defensive players saying in the locker room that the unit needs to find a solution.
"I think every single player on this defense needs to take a good hard look at themselves and see what they gotta do to improve," Jonathan Allen said.
Offensively, the unit simply needs to execute earlier in the game. The Commanders have shown they're capable of doing that; they moved down the field on a 14-play drive, even converting a fourth-and-1 on the way to a 7-0 lead against the Eagles.
And yet consistency has been a problem. Four days later against the Bears, the offense didn't score until the second quarter and put up just seven yards on back-to-back three-and-outs in the first.
"You've got to go put points on the board and we just didn't do that," Logan Thomas said after the game. "In the second half, we had some resolve and we fought, but when you put yourself in that hole, it's hard to climb back out of it."
While it hasn't been in the best of circumstances, Howell has at least shown that he could have a future as Washington's starter beyond this season when given the opportunity to perform. As Rivera said, he's shown grit, toughness and decision-making, despite being a second-year player who is still learning what it means to be an NFL quarterback.
If the Commanders can find a way to take some of the load off Howell's shoulders, they can still highlight all of his positive traits and start winning again.
"Those are things...that'll benefit as we continue the season," Rivera said. "It's a long, long year. We got 12 more games left to play, and we're going to approach them one game at a time and focus in on playing the best we can each game."