As it turned out, the former UNC quarterback was under center from start of finish.
It was very important, head coach Ron Rivera said after the Commanders' 17-15 loss to the Ravens, for the team to get an in-depth evaluation of Howell. So, with Taylor Heinicke serving as the emergency quarterback, Howell was named the starter for the evening.
Of course, Howell still has plenty of growth ahead of him, but finishing the night 24-of-35 for 280 yards and a touchdown is not a bad way to wrap up the preseason. It was a chance for Howell to show what he can do, and many of the traits that convinced Washington to draft him were on display.
"[I'm] really appreciative of the coaches for having the confidence in me to go the whole way," Howell said. "Obviously, I still have a lot to work on, but it was great seeing the whole game through."
Washington had seen smaller sample sizes of Howell's skill set in the previous preseason games, as he came in during the fourth quarter of both matchups. Howell flashed his arm strength as well as his elusiveness in the pocket against the Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs, and it nearly brought the Commanders back in from double-digit deficits in both games.
Against the Ravens, Washington got to see how Howell handled himself with an actual game plan, and the rookie did not disappoint. He completed six of his first nine passes and got the offense within field goal range on the first two drives.
One of the highlights from first quarter came on a third-and-4, when Howell delivered a strike to former UNC teammate Dyami Brown, who turned the pass into a 26-yard gain. He also had a 15-yard pass to Alex Erickson, which led to a field goal later in the quarter, and a 28-yard shot to Matt Cole that led to another field goal in the third quarter.
"I thought Sam played well, I thought he did a nice job," Rivera said. "It's just one of those things where we want to get him as much exposure to get comfortable."
Adjusting to the professional game has been a project for Howell. Aside from digesting the playbook, which is much more extensive than the one he learned at North Carolina, Howell has been working on more minute details like his footwork. "It really is" different from what he was asked to do with the Tar Heels, he said, but he has gotten more comfortable with it over the past month.
"It is something that I need to work on. It really goes to hand-eye coordination, but also with the rest of your body, as well."
Howell admitted that he tends to rely on his feet when things break down, so he has focused on delivering his throws in the pocket. One of the best examples came in the fourth quarter, when Ravens linebacker Chuck Wiley laid a lick on Howell as the quarterback delivered a pass to Reggie Bonnafon. The running back rewarded that by making the grab and diving into the end zone.
"Really, it's about simulating game situations and different types of rushes. It's more mental reps and then putting that to your body. And then, it's about just going through the process and getting more comfortable with the offense."
There were times when Howell needed to rely on his athleticism, and he was just as impressive on the ground, if not more so. He led the team with 62 yards on eight carries, and it helped keep drives alive on several occasions. He converted a third-and-9 on the opening drive, and his rushing yards accounted for 47% of the team's 17-play, 64-yard scoring drive in the third quarter.
Howell finished the night with 342 total yards. His evaluation of his performance: it was OK.
"There are of course some plays that I would like to have back, but there were also some plays I was able to make. Obviously, we'll take a look at the film and be more critical. But my expectations will always be high."
Barring injury, Saturday's game will be the last time we see Howell on the field for a while. In the meantime, he, offensive coordinator Scott Turner and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese will dissect the film to see where he can improve while he sits behind Wentz and Heinicke.
However, it is clear to Rivera that Howell "has a very bright future in this league."
"He was exciting to watch, he made some really good decisions, and he made some decisions that could have been better. He did a nice job."