Washington has a rare gift in Sam Howell. Are they doing enough to capitalize on this?

When you look at Washington – the football team, not the city, although that is true there too – all you see is dysfunction, years of underperformance, incompetence and empty promises. But if you look a little deeper, Washington has the most valuable NFL treasure of all: a good quarterback on a rookie contract.

Commanders head coach Ron Rivera prepared for a season full of doubts earlier this year when he named young Sam Howell – with exactly one Game He had plenty of NFL experience at the time – as his 2023 starter. But given that Rivera had won 7, 7 and 8 games in his first three years in Washington, the move was less “Riverboat gambler” and more ” Fuck it, that’s me. “All in with my last three chips.”

And then, honestly, something amazing happened. Howell, the 23-year-old fifth-round draft pick from North Carolina, played extremely well. So good that Howell is statistically one of the best in the NFL at his position. His 2,471 yards passing is second only to Tua Tagovailoa. He leads the NFL in attempts and completions and ranks seventh in touchdowns.

On the other hand, he is tied with Josh Allen, Mac Jones and Jimmy Garoppolo with nine interceptions. Even more concerning is the fact that he has conceded 44 sacks – 13 more than his nearest challenger, Zach Wilson.

The number of sacks, on pace to surpass David Carr’s NFL record of 76 set in 2002 with Houston, is due in part to an overwhelmed Washington offensive line and in part to Howell’s tendency to rush the ball early in the season to last for a long time. In any case, it’s the most concerning statistic for Washington – this franchise has a bit of a history of star young quarterbacks being beaten to death – especially given the opportunity presented by Howell.

Sam Howell (14) has played well for the Commanders this season. Now it's time for Washington to build a competitor around him. (AP Photo/Greg M. Cooper)Sam Howell (14) has played well for the Commanders this season. Now it's time for Washington to build a competitor around him. (AP Photo/Greg M. Cooper)

Sam Howell (14) has played well for the Commanders this season. Now it’s time for Washington to build a competitor around him. (AP Photo/Greg M. Cooper) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Howell’s rookie contract has a salary cap hit of $960,400 this year, rising to just $1.19 million through 2025. That’s a lot of cap space, and the Commanders have a stockpile of draft picks next year – a first-rounder, two seconds, two thirds – and just freed up a whole lot of cap space by sending Montez Sweat and Chase Young across the Potomac .

The question now facing new team owner Josh Harris is whether Rivera and his regime will be willing to take advantage of these picks. The Commanders sneaked through the back door of the playoffs in the 2020 season, but two straight seven-win seasons – and some uninspiring games so far this year – haven’t exactly inspired confidence.

In short, commanders have benefited from a ridiculously easy schedule for early 2023. They are 4-5 this season, but 0-3 against teams with a winning record. Washington has settled on Arizona, Denver, Atlanta and New England…not exactly a quartet that will be in the conference championships.

The road gets rocky from here: Seattle next weekend, with Miami, San Francisco and two dates against Dallas lurking. There’s a slim chance Washington could sneak into the playoffs considering the NFC is weak and frail with more than three teams and the NFC South champion, but would that save Rivera’s job? Should it?

The bigger question is how Washington will handle the next two and a half precious seasons of Howell’s rookie contract. The Commanders have already bolstered the offensive line and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is planning plays to get the ball out of Howell’s hands quicker. The more time he spends vertical, the more time Howell has to use his cannon arm to stretch the field.

“Sam Howell is our future. He’s our quarterback. “I feel like we’ve found our quarterback for the next five to 10 years and I truly believe that,” said defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said after Sunday’s game. “Not only does he make great plays on the field, but his behavior after bad plays and not good plays. He’s always able to recover.”

For his part, Howell keeps his head down – at least publicly – and his gaze on the lawn in front of him. “I really want to be quarterback here for a long time,” he said after Sunday’s win over the Patriots. “To get to this point, I have to take it one day at a time and do everything I can every day.”

On a broader level, Howell, like Trevor Lawrence and Russell Wilson before him, can command a lot of recognition and little (relative) pay as the team builds around him. Making Washington a franchise destination again would be worth whatever Howell’s eventual extension would cost.

If Washington’s new regime wants to convince its fans that things are no longer the same, spending wisely in Howell’s cheap years would be a good start.

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