And then a strange thing happened Sunday: The Commanders played pretty well in the first half, competing with the NFC’s leader in a game that could’ve been wildly lopsided from the start.
“I thought Sam had some really good moments,” Rivera said. “Early on when things were balanced, it was one of those things that the situation gave him an opportunity, and he performed, he really did.”
But Howell threw a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions, and Washington fell to the 49ers, 27-10, to extend its longest losing streak in a decade to seven games.
Imagine Howell’s week: He gets benched in the third quarter against the New York Jets, finds out Wednesday he’s been benched for the following game, then learns hours before kickoff Sunday that, change of plans, he’s going to start.
“It’s a tough situation for him to just build confidence,” guard Sam Cosmi said after the game.
From the start, Howell had little time to make something happen; the 49ers had possession for more than 12 minutes in the first quarter. Overall, Washington’s offense was limited to only 43 plays. But Howell quickly regrouped and kept his team in it with a pair of scoring drives.
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On the first, running back Brian Robinson Jr. picked up 18 rushing yards on three runs and added 22 more on a catch-and-run to help Washington to the 49ers 30-yard line. A 47-yard kick by Joey Slye got the Commanders on the board.
Then, on the their next drive, Howell threw a 42-yard dime on third down to Terry McLaurin.
“We kind of thought coming into this game they might play a little more man than they usually do,” Howell said. “We got manned on that play, and I think Terry against anybody in man coverage is a good matchup.”
The two connected again in the end zone when McLaurin caught a three-yard pass for the score.
Washington’s scoring drives tied the game at 10 with less than five minutes left in the first half. Yet the momentum was fleeting. Howell was sacked on third down to end a drive early in the third quarter, then threw interceptions to squander the following two drives.
Howell completed 17 of 28 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown, the two picks and a 60.0 passer rating.
“He’s already kind of quiet, so you never really know what’s going on in his head, per se,” McLaurin said of Howell. “… But I give credit to him because it hasn’t been an easy season for him. And obviously he’s going to get a lot of the blame and things like that. I think we all have a hand in it — the coaches, players. It’s been tough, but the way he came out in the first half, it showed resiliency. You could see a smile on his face. That made me happy because it’s a tough game, especially at that position. So I think he handled it as best as he could.”
Rivera declined to name a starting quarterback for Week 18, when the Commanders host the Dallas Cowboys in a game that will have draft order implications for Washington and playoff stakes for the Cowboys.
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“Obviously an interesting week,” Howell said. “Wasn’t expecting until two hours before the game to have to play today, but … every single opportunity I get, I try to go out there and give it my all and make the most of it.”
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Washington’s 15-play opening script included pass, pass, pass — a formula that, perhaps unsurprisingly, faltered. Howell was coming off a rough stretch, so throwing repeatedly against the 49ers’ defense was an interesting choice to start. But the Commanders quickly reset and found the spark they needed when Robinson, who returned after missing four games because of a hamstring injury, burst up the middle of the field on second and nine for a 12-yard run, then took a screen pass 22 yards, breaking multiple tackles along the way.
“We got a lot of respect for Robinson,” 49ers defensive back Isaiah Oliver said. “I think he showed today that he’s one of the best running backs in the league. Definitely one of the best running backs we’ve faced all year.”
Robinson’s early success took some of the burden off Howell and prompted offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy to get his backs more involved. In the third quarter, Antonio Gibson was the spark, turning a short pass into a 15-yard gain, then picking up 16 yards on a subsequent run.
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The two combined for 63 rushing yards — all in the first three quarters. Howell’s two interceptions in the fourth quarter left the offense only three minutes of possession time while trailing.
Red-zone defense steps up
The Commanders gave up 28 first downs and 408 net yards (6.0 per play) to the 49ers, including 184 on the ground. But it could’ve been much worse, given the circumstances.
Washington didn’t have starting cornerbacks Kendall Fuller (knee) and Benjamin St-Juste (concussion). It didn’t have safety Percy Butler (wrist), and for much of the game it didn’t have backup corner Tariq Castro-Fields (shoulder). And later on, it lost Christian Holmes (concussion).
Yet the Commanders only gave up two passes of 20-plus yards and allowed only three touchdowns on six 49ers trips to the red zone.
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On the 49ers’ opening drive, Washington’s front seven spoiled a short pass to Christian McCaffrey that resulted in a loss of five yards and pressured Brock Purdy to throw away the ball on third and long, holding San Francisco to a field goal. Then, in the final seconds of the first half, the 49ers advanced as far as Washington’s 1-yard line before being held to a field goal. And in the fourth quarter, linebacker David Mayo knocked back running back Elijah Mitchell for a loss from Washington’s 1-yard line on fourth down, ensuring the 49ers couldn’t expand their lead.
“I thought the guys were really gritty,” Rivera said of his defense. “I thought they gave themselves opportunities. This is one of the better running teams in the league, and [we were] trying to contain it and keep it inside, not let them stretch, because their backs have great vision [and] make good decisions on their cutbacks, and we were trying to keep it as compact as we could.”
Tough season takes a toll
The Commanders’ locker room was eerily quiet, much like it has been in recent weeks. Washington has been out of playoff contention since Week 15, and its slow trudge to the end of the season has been tough for all involved.
“Losing kind of wears on you when you put so much into it, when you take into account the offseason and all the reps you take then and all the sprints you run and all the plans you have for all the success you want to have,” offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas said. “For it not to come to fruition, it just gets tougher and tougher each week. It kind of steals your joy at some points.”
The silver lining for Washington is that its latest defeat, coupled with the Arizona Cardinals’ upset win over the Philadelphia Eagles, bumped it up to the second slot in the 2024 NFL draft order — for now. But that means little to the players whose futures aren’t guaranteed beyond next week.
“Yeah, you have to capitalize on it each time you’re out there,” Lucas added. “That’s the difference. You can’t [throw] away your opportunities.”
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McLaurin took it further.
“It’s definitely tough,” he said. “I mean, you want to be a part of something that is sustainable, and you’re winning and competing at a high level. They’ve got a great staff over there. They’ve got great players. You can tell that they love playing together. … I got to spend some time with a lot of those guys; like six or seven of them made the Pro Bowl last year. I really got to be around them, and it kind of reminds me a little bit [of] Ohio State … the kind of culture that they have and everything. You see why they have the success that they do.
“When you’re going against teams like that, you got to play — not perfect, but you got to make the most of every opportunity. … You got to give them credit for building that team and for the players going out there and executing. Hopefully, I can be a part of something like that, but I’m just focused on myself, my world and my journey, and I’m going to keep working to be the best player I can be.”