The move might feel like a surprising change, as Rivera was originally contemplating the idea of starting Taylor Heinicke in the season finale, but Howell believes he has been ready for his moment for a while.
"I think probably towards like halfway through the year I thought my development has come a long way, and I started to feel really comfortable in the offense and mentally I feel really good about where I am right now," Howell said during his Wednesday press conference.
From the time the Commanders took Howell with the first pick of the fifth round back in April, the reports surrounding Howell were that he had talent but needed time to develop. That proved to be true in the preseason, as he led the league in preseason passing yards. But after spending time behind Heinicke and Carson Wentz, including almost two months as the primary backup, Howell has made enough progress to convince Rivera that it is time for a deeper evaluation of the rookie.
"Watching Sam every day and getting a chance to watch how he performed against the defense and those little detail things I talked about that I felt he had to work on coming out of training camp, you could see that he was doing those things," Rivera said.
While other rookie quarterbacks like Kenny Pickett and Malik Willis were put in either immediate or more likely positions to impact their respective teams, there was no such pressure on Howell, as it was a foregone conclusion that he would be the third quarterback behind Wentz and Heinicke. Howell, who was one of the top quarterback prospects last offseason after three seasons as a starter at North Carolina, welcomed the opportunity to learn behind both veterans.
As the third quarterback on the depth chart, Howell was not as involved with the game plan each week, but Heinicke and Wentz still kept him informed and proved to be valuable sources of insight.
"I really couldn't say enough nice things about those guys," Howell said. "And it's just so awesome to be with two veteran guys that have both been through a lot in their careers and are both still willing to help me."
The most action Howell has gotten since starting the preseason finale against the Baltimore Ravens has been directing the scout team, where he has been able to work on his mechanics. Thanks to that, along with leaning on his fellow quarterbacks, he feels that his comprehension of both the Commanders' offense and opposing defenses has come a long way.
"I've been working hard all year, and I was kind of waiting for an opportunity to go out there," Howell said. "I kind of assumed that what the circumstances are, I might have an option to and the ability to go out there and play this weekend. So, you know, I'm excited for it."
Footwork has also been an area of Howell's skill set that he has been focused on over the last few months. As he has mentioned in previous scrums with the media, footwork for quarterbacks in college is drastically different from what he has had to learn in the NFL.
But after seeing the improvements Howell has made from rookie minicamp to now, Ken Zampese has given the rookie his seal of approval and feels that "he's in good shape."
"I'm really excited to see him," Zampese said. "He has so much pride and has worked so hard. You can see the progress that he has made. I can [see it] when we are on the field all the time or in the meetings all the time. I really like that he is going where he is going."
The Washington Commanders have begun preparations for their season finale against the Dallas Cowboys as Sam Howell gets ready for his first career start. Check out the top photos from Wednesday's practice.
The Commanders have nothing to play for this weekend, but they will be facing a team in the Cowboys who have a shot to improve their playoff seeding from fifth to first if they win and the Philadelphia Eagles lose. "This is an opportunity for us to give Sam a chance to show us what he's capable of," Rivera said, as the Cowboys have one of the better defenses in the league with a talented pass rush.
How Howell performs will not be the Commanders' only evaluation of him, though, and he is not worried about what he may or may not have to prove to people on Sunday.
"At the end of the day, I wanna prove to my teammates that I can do this job and I just wanna prove to them that I'm capable of playing in the NFL," Howell said. "Really more than anything I just wanna prove [it] to myself. I know how hard I've worked my whole entire life to get this opportunity. I just wanna go out there and make the most of it."
With that said, Howell is playing to win.
"Obviously, the situation is what it is," Howell said. "We are kind of out of the whole playoff race, but I don't take any games for granted. This game is the most important game of my life, and it should be the most important game of everybody on the team's life."