Aldridge: Sam Howell’s impressive debut made you look and Commanders take notice

LANDOVER, Md. — Weren’t we just here, in this stadium, two years ago this weekend? Watching a young quarterback play with his hair on fire in his first career start, and run all over the place and make a bunch of impressive throws and look like the moment wasn’t at all too big for him, and score on a very impressive running touchdown? And wonder if Washington had finally — finally — solved its never-solved puzzle at quarterback?

Oh, boy.

Y’all are all in again, aren’t you?

Do you prefer “Sudden” Sam Howell, “Slingin”’ Sam Howell or “Super” Sam Howell?

The slightest hint of quarterback competence on the part of any Commanders signal caller makes this town lose its collective shizzle.

OK, maybe that was me.

No, I’m kidding. A little. Some.

No, no, no! I’m not buying Sam Howell hype after one … really kind of impressive … quite good, actually, pro appearance in Washington’s season finale, a 26-6 win over the Cowboys, completing a disappointing, postseason-free 8-8-1 campaign but starting the Commanders’ Hot Stove League good and early.

Considering it was Howell’s first time on an NFL field in a regular-season game, against a Dallas team that played its starters on both sides almost all game and needed the win in hopes of stealing the top seed in the NFC playoffs … well, that was entertaining, wasn’t it?

Maybe the Cowboys saw the Eagles pummeling the JV Giants and lost interest. But, man, did Dak Prescott look bad Sunday. (I don’t know much, but maybe the young men from Texas also enjoyed our fair city some well into Saturday night. We’ve got some stuff.)

But Howell, the Commanders’ fifth-round pick in 2022, could be the only quarterback on the roster next spring. Taylor Heinicke will be a free agent. Carson Wentz … won’t be here. (But, a classy move by the soon-to-be former Washington quarterback, as disclosed by Howell — Wentz gave Howell the use of his suite Sunday at FedEx, for the overflow of friends and family that came to town to see his NFL debut.)

“I guess I was all right,” said Howell, who went 11 of 19 for 169 yards two touchdowns (one rushing) and one interception.

When Ron Rivera talked about his team getting a “spark” from his new starting QB last week against Cleveland, this is more of what he had in mind.

“It is about the quarterback making the plays that he’s supposed to make, managing the game when he needs to manage the game, and every now and then, when you need a big play, they make a big play,” Rivera said.

You can ask, with some justification, if Rivera is the person who should pick the next franchise QB around here. He’s had two cracks at permanently fixing the position. His first choice was 38-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick. OK, Fitzmagic lasted less than a half before suffering a season-ending (and, it looks like, career-ending) hip injury. Unfortunate, and maybe Rivera gets a mulligan for that one.

But you can’t explain away Wentz.



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It’s not the picks that went to Indy, though they are important. It’s the investment of the entire football side of the building in a guy who was, clearly, found wanting by two different teams in two conferences. The red flags couldn’t have been more crimson. And yet, Rivera not only vouched for Wentz — he did so loudly, consistently.

But, in fairness, Rivera’s also the guy whose team picked Howell, after bringing in Wentz.

Let’s not put the kid in Canton just yet. But he certainly showed he could make all the necessary throws. Unlike Heinicke — who, whether under orders or out of a desire to avoid further injury, never used his legs to great effect this season — Howell had no compunction about taking off and running Sunday, running four times for 36 yards (excluding a kneeldown), including the third-quarter touchdown run. The other three runs moved the chains for first downs.

“It came out hot,” fellow rookie Jahan Dotson said of Howell’s throws, which included a 16-yard TD pass to Terry McLaurin in the first quarter, a 30-yard pitch-and-catch to Dotson in the second quarter, a 20-yard catch-and-run on an option route to Dotson in the third quarter and a 52-yard rope to McLaurin down the sideline on the last play of the third.

“I think he did a great job of letting the ball go,” McLaurin said. “He trusted his reads a lot today. He was on time with the ball, a lot. For him to get his first start against a really good defense, and you see the ball flying off of his hands, those are good things. That’s a sign that he’s confident and he was prepared for this game. And, you never know how guys are gonna react when they bump their head a little bit.”

That referred to Howell’s first-half interception, when he threw into … boy, there were a lot of Cowboys in the end zone, waiting for the pass he was trying to throw to Cam Sims. It didn’t get there.

But Howell wasn’t gun-shy afterward. He hit Dotson on the 30-yard slant, checked down when he was supposed to, threw the ball away when he had to. Far from perfect, but encouraging. That described much of Washington’s play in its last game.

The defense, playing without numerous injured players, including Jonathan Allen and Kamren Curl, nonetheless had a stellar afternoon. Prescott was way, way off, but the Commanders’ secondary might have had its most complete game of the season, with corners glued to Dallas’ receivers most of the day — and corner Kendall Fuller jumping a route for a 29-yard interception and score.

Dallas got next to nothing on the ground; defensive tackle John Ridgeway was a monster inside before leaving with a shoulder injury.

It made Sunday all the more perplexing. Washington handled a Dallas team that mauled it in September. It was the first team in the league to beat the Eagles this season. It beat playoff-bound Jacksonville and should have beaten Minnesota. But, it didn’t handle the Giants, who are going to the playoffs instead of Washington on the strength of their win and tie over the Commanders.

Does Washington have a defense that can lead it to contender status, or not? And will that defense include Daron Payne next season, or not?



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Does quarterbacking like Howell provided, over a full season, take this team to nine or 10 wins? Can Howell be the guy to do that quarterbacking, or does Washington have to devote still more resources this winter to take another whack at it?

And, uh, who’s the owner going to be who makes all those decisions?

Let’s start lower. And, slower. “Sudden” Sam it is.

(Photo: Rob Carr / Getty Images)


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