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Perspective | For two months, Sam Howell showed what he isn’t: The QB of the future

While Ron Rivera looks at his phone, sees Josh Harris’s number pop up and decides whether to answer, let’s consider the other major issue facing the Washington Commanders as they head into an offseason that could scarcely be more important: quarterback.

What’s now apparent to whomever the Commanders’ new coach will be — and, more importantly, to whomever their new general manager will be — is that the quarterback of the future isn’t on the roster that just completed a miserable season with an equally miserable 38-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at FedEx Field. If this season was about determining whether Sam Howell could be the guy next season or five seasons from now, well, then, there’s success in that, because at least you know: He can’t.

That’s too bad for Howell, who is both tough and admirable.

“The one thing I know about Sam,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said, “the kid has guts.”

That’s true. But guts can’t be — and aren’t — the whole package. When your team owns the second pick in the draft — which was Sunday’s most significant development because the Commanders clinched it — having clarity at the sport’s preeminent position is paramount.

Put another way: Leading the NFL in interceptions thrown and sacks taken aren’t the best data points to put on a résumé in an effort to impress your new bosses. Howell did both.

“I think I’ve definitely shown — at times — that I can do it,” he said Sunday evening.

The key there: “at times.” But at so many other times, his play was all over the place. More importantly, he got worse, not better. Midway through the season, the safe bet was on Howell to be the starter next season regardless of who the coach or GM would be. But that was before eight straight losses showed he was more part of the problem than the solution — and before that losing streak shot his team up the draft board into marquee quarterback territory.

What we know now that we didn’t know then: He shouldn’t enter training camp as the anointed starter, if he’s the starter at all. This isn’t a conclusion drawn based on Howell’s play Sunday — although in a 19-for-27 performance in which he threw his 20th and 21st interceptions, he didn’t help himself. And it’s a conclusion that would have seemed surprising in mid-November, before the Commanders imploded and when Howell seemed ascendant.

Here, though, is his seven-game finishing kick: 124 for 215 for a completion percentage of 57.7, an average of 166.1 passing yards, four touchdowns and 12 interceptions. When he could have secured a spot in the conversation about who the starter should be in 2024, he removed himself with his play.

Could he be better next season? Sure.

“I think I’ll be more consistent,” Howell said. “I think the main thing for me is just playing. I think at times I was playing some good ball. I’ve just got to do it more consistently.”

The Commanders lost to the Cowboys. Let the offseason changes begin.

In different circumstances — with a better roster around him, with the regime that brought him in still in charge — maybe Howell could argue he deserves that chance to grow. But it’s hard to make a case that he grew over the past two months, and it’s inescapable that his season was borderline historic.

Howell was sacked 65 times, including four times Sunday. That’s not only more than any player in the NFL this year, but the only quarterback to be sacked more times in a season this century is David Carr, twice (in 2002 and 2005). In the past decade, only two quarterbacks have thrown more than Howell’s 21 interceptions. (Thanks, pro-football-reference.com.) Yeah, there’s an extra week in the season now. But Howell was in the neighborhood before the Commanders played their 17th game. It’s not a neighborhood you want to reside in.

“As it got away from us in terms of the score, it becomes difficult where you put so much on the quarterback to make something happen,” Rivera said. “That’s a little bit what it’s been like the last six weeks, seven weeks. It’s been tough. It’s been tough sledding. But he’s handled it well. You see certain talents and certain abilities.”

On Monday, Harris is all but certain to fire Rivera. The search for a new head of football operations had to have begun last week or last month or even earlier. And on the very first day, whoever ends up with that job can settle into their new office, dim the lights and start watching tape. Two of USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye and LSU’s Jayden Daniels will be available with the second pick. Love one of them? Great. Take him, and let’s go.

But don’t let the tape end there. Oregon’s Bo Nix? Washington’s Michael Penix Jr.? Maybe you love one of them — or someone else — enough that you think you can build a roster around him, even if he’s likely to last longer on the draft’s first night. If so, go for it and trade back from No. 2.

(Man, it was so, so, so important that New Orleans beat Atlanta on Sunday. That obscure result swung enough strength-of-schedule tiebreakers that the 4-13 Commanders were deemed weaker than 4-13 New England and therefore will pick second, a spot ahead of the Patriots. And please don’t be down about a loss to Dallas at the end of a season like this; a win would have pushed Washington down the draft board, and this QB problem is more easily solved with the second pick than with, say, the sixth.)

It’s not Howell’s fault that, two years ago, he was drafted into a franchise that for three decades has been defined by quarterback instability. Washington hasn’t entered consecutive seasons with the same starting quarterback as the year before since 2017, when Kirk Cousins sat in the big chair. Since then, it has been Alex Smith to Case Keenum to Dwayne Haskins to Ryan Fitzpatrick to Carson Wentz to Howell, with Taylor Heinicke somehow starting more games than any of them and a dozen quarterbacks starting at least once. Yikes.

For Harris and his new football decision-makers to have a real shot at success, that turnstile has to stop. Without knowing who will lead the new front office and who will be the coach, we have no way of knowing which quarterback this roster will be built around. The sad reality of the 2023 season, though, is that we know who it won’t be.

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