Let's get things straight here: Sam Howell does not believe in moral victories.
Like the rest of the Washington Commanders, Howell was in a somber mood as he addressed reporters after the 34-31 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Nevermind that he finished the day completing 71% of his passes and accounting for 330 total yards, a complete turnaround from what he put on the field against the Buffalo Bills a week ago. The fact remains that it wasn't good enough to get a win over last year's NFC champion, and he must live with that as he prepares for Thursday Night Football against the Chicago Bears.
No one's here to argue with Howell; individual performances are either magnified or diminished by the outcome of a game. However, there is a difference between short- and long-term success, and in terms of Howell's development, the moxie and poise he showed after what was the worst game of his career so far is a promising sign for his future.
"It was a hell of a performance by Sam," said coach Ron Rivera. "He bounced back. He learned from last week. He grew and he got better. It was reflected in the way he played. It was reflected in the way he led our offense."
Howell said he didn't feel any added pressure in the days leading up to Sunday's game, but there were questions – some justifiable -- from outside analysts after throwing four interceptions in the 38-3 loss to the Bills. Many of the traits that Washington likes about Howell -- his poise, ball placement and decision-making -- were either absent or missing from the Week 3 matchup. It was a reminder that Howell, while talented and exciting, is still learning how to be an NFL quarterback.
Howell wasn't keen on using that as an excuse.
"The teams we're playing, they don't care," Howell said. "The scoreboard doesn't care. So, I got to do my job at a higher level in order for this team to go where we want to go."
"I think the player I was on Sunday is not who I truly am as a player," Howell added.
That ended up being true, because Howell looked completely different against the Eagles.
"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."
The difference was noticeable from the Commanders' first drive. He started his days with back-to-back passes to McLaurin, and he completed 4-of-6 passes while accounting for 59 of the 75 yards it took to move down the field for the opening touchdown.
Howell was sharp with his passes on the Commanders' first two drives, which fueled the offense to a pair of touchdowns. He was also smarter with the ball, electing to take the smart play, whether that was dumping a pass off to a running back or using his legs rather than force throws that had a small margin for error.
That was particularly true in the fourth quarter, when the Commanders needed to get in the end zone to tie the score on two separate occasions. He methodically moved the offense down the field to start the fourth quarter, completing 6-of-7 passes. His only incompletion was on a deep shot to Jahan Dotson that fell harmlessly out of bounds.
The rest of his throws on that drive, which ended with Washington tying the score at 24, required Howell to have a quick release, and unlike last week, when his hesitancy seemed to stall the offense, he delivered strikes to his receivers.
Howell was still sacked five times, but it didn't feel as impactful because of how well the offense was progressing down the field.
"He had a great game, especially with all the critics last week," said running back Antonio Gibson. "He acted like none of it fazed him, and he showed what he was."
Howell's arm strength and moxie were also present. There were moments littered throughout the game that showed how much he trusts his receivers. His 27-yard pass to Logan Thomas in the second quarter led to a touchdown that put the Commanders up 14-7, while a 35-yard catch-and-run by Dyami Brown put them in field goal range near the end of the first half.
No moment was greater than the final drive of the fourth quarter. Howell delivered one clutch throw after the other, including a 16-yard completion on fourth-and-2 and an 11-yard connection to McLaurin on third-and-2 with 10 seconds left.
Finally, with one second left on the clock, Howell slung it to Dotson in the end zone for the 10-yard touchdown that tied the score and forced overtime.
"We talked about him growing, showing some growth, and that's what we believe he is capable of, we really do," Rivera said. "We've had a lot of confidence in him, and he's been paying us back."
The Washington Commanders have begun warming up at Lincoln Financial Field for their Week 4 matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles. (Photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
It was a much-needed turnaround for Howell and the offense as a whole. To Howell, it still wasn't enough.
"I think it is my job to win football games for this organization, for this team, and we did not do that today," Howell said. "We will go back this week on a short week, playing on Thursday night, and we are excited for that opportunity."
Of course, that's the right answer for Howell to give. He should be more concerned about the outcome, because now that his team is at 2-2, it puts more pressure on them to bounce back with a win on Thursday Night Football against the Chicago Bears.
But while success in the NFL is binary in the short term, there is some room, however small, to be both disappointed and encouraged by the way Howell and the offense played against the Eagles. He showed growth after an objectively bad game and how his team in a position to win against a Super Bowl contender.
While the effort ultimately wasn't enough to win, it was a positive sign.
"I had no doubt in my mind that he was gonna come out here today and play a great game," Curtis Samuel said.