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USATSI

The Washington Commanders barely missed the playoffs in 2022, finishing 8-8-1, just behind the 9-8 Seattle Seahawks who earned the NFC's final seed. Coming just short last season wasn't because of their defense. Head coach Ron Rivera's side of the ball allowed 20.2 points per game, the seventh-fewest in the entire league. However, their offensive shortcomings -- 18.9 points per game, the ninth-fewest in the league -- may have been avoidable if they had elevated their 2023 starting quarterback Sam Howell earlier in the season. 

The 2022 fifth-round pick out of North Carolina made his NFL debut in Week 18, the then-7-8-1 Commanders' regular season finale against the playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys. Howell helped lead Washington to a 26-6 victory over their NFC East rival, completing 11 of his 19 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown (a 16-yarder to Pro Bowl wide receiver Terry McLaurin), and an interception. Rivera toggled back and forth between veterans Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke last season, but he revealed on his drive home from the stadium that Sunday, he had an epiphany with his wife: Howell should have been the starting quarterback sooner.

"You can ask Stephanie, all we f---ing talked about was the quarterback, what the quarterback did, who he was," Rivera said Monday, via Sports Illustrated. "I kept saying, 'F---, if I would have known this, I would have played him sooner.' When you only have so much time to show it, it's hard, I kept thinking, 'God' but after that game, everything told me this kid, give him the opportunity and see what he does with it." 

Howell provided confirmation to his head that he could be "the guy" at quarterback after the then-rookie immediately came up to the coaching staff to explain his second quarter interception on the Cowboys five that killed a drive that seemed destined to end with a touchdown. 

"Now, I know, the quarterback said to Rivera. I'll throw it to the pylon next time."

That was the lightbulb moment for Rivera.

"This is a guy that gets it," Rivera said when explaining his thought process after hearing the rookie's views on his turnover. "He understands. He sees what's going on."

Unfortunately for Washington, Rivera was unable to see enough from Howell in practice last season to see the North Carolina alum had it going on since he was behind Wentz, currently a free agent, and Heinicke, Desmond Ridder's backup with the Atlanta Falcons,  almost the entire year.