ASHBURN, Va. -- The general feeling Friday at Commanders training camp was confidence. There was confidence in Sam Howell that he's not only the guy who can lead Washington this season but also the one halts the carousel of quarterbacks -- seven different Week 1 starters in seven years. There was confidence from Sam Howell that he can be that guy, too, and that he has the support system around him that will give him the tools to be just that.
"When I step out on the field, I'm confident in my abilities," Howell said Friday. "I'm confident in the offense, I'm confident in my teammates, and I'm confident in the system. When I'm confident in all those types of things, I can just go out there and just be myself and play free and play fast. I feel like that's what I've been doing the past few weeks. I feel really good about it."
"I was real anxious to get to Baltimore," Ron Rivera said. "And now having had the chance to go back and look at the tapes, I could say there's been the significant kind of growth that we were looking for, that I feel we need to have. And so I'm very confident and comfortable in saying that he's our starter."
It wasn't just those two days of practice, though. Howell's short-, medium- and long-term growth have all been impressive to Rivera and his staff. In the short term, Howell is more comfortable in his current play than he was at the beginning of training camp. There are fewer in-huddle miscues -- from which offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy orders a complete reset -- and fewer miscommunications. Looking at the past several months, Howell has grown in his command of the playbook, his understanding of his teammates and his role as a leader. And over the long term -- since he was drafted in the fifth round of 2022 -- he has improved his footwork, his timing and his decision-making.
Throughout, he has kept an even keel, one of the attributes both Rivera and Commanders players have noticed.
"It helps us a lot, just knowing when you go in the huddle, the guy leading the offense isn't rattled," wide receiver Jahan Dotson said. "It makes you calm your mind a little bit, and it's really cool to have someone like that in the huddle with us."
Dotson, who arrived in the same draft class as Howell, noticed his quarterback's calm demeanor "right away" -- when Howell impressed in a Week-18 win over the Cowboys in which the then-rookie quarterback threw for a touchdown on his first career pass and later added a rushing touchdown in a 26-6 win.
"He looked like he had been playing all year," Dotson said. "That's the kind of guy, like I said, you want leading your offense, and it kind of relates to me a little bit. I'm the exact same way, so it's pretty cool to see that."
Howell is only one part -- though a large part -- of an offseason full of change for the Commanderss offense. And while he, of course, will be the driving factor in how successful it is, there are plenty of variables around him as well.
Howell the quarterback: Room for growth, but solid base
Howell's journey to starter had lots of twists and turns in not a lot of time. Two years ago, he was a reportedly having a second- or third-round grade on him. He sat behind Carson Wentz and/or Taylor Heinicke until the Commanders were officially eliminated from the playoffs.. Last year, he slid to the fifth round, where the Commanders scooped him up 144th overall after
There are strengths to Howell's game that have become apparent over the past few weeks. He has a lively, twitchy delivery that allows him to get the ball out quickly and while on the run in either direction. He shows good zip on his passes and steps into many of his throws with confidence. Perhaps just as important, he has shown improved instincts of when not to throw a particular pass.
"You start to see the consistency in the decision-making," Rivera said last week. "You start to see the consistency in the throws on where they need to be placed, you see the handling of the calls. You know, it's that type of growth that you look for and we're starting to see that."
But it was in practices against the Ravens earlier this week when Rivera described Howell's decision-making as "very plus" and "exceptionally good." That helped make Friday's announcement a bit easier.
Howell's supporting cast: Plenty of weapons, but questions up front
Based on the personnel surround him, Howell is set up for success in some aspects and potentially set up for significant challenges in others.
Washington's wide receiver room has a mix of talents. Pro Bowler Terry McLaurin is an exceptional all-around receiver, and Dotson caught seven touchdowns in an impressive but injury-shortened rookie year. Do-it-all weapon Curtis Samuel will be deployed in a variety of ways in Bieniemy's scheme, and speedster Dyami Brown has been a camp standout. Brown caught 106 passes for 2,133 yards and 20 touchdowns from Howell across two seasons at North Carolina.
At running back, Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson provide a one-two punch. Robinson Jr. is a year removed from being , something that "never" allowed him to feel like himself last season. He feels faster after losing weight during the offseason as well. Gibson says that Bieniemy's uptempo practices have him in terrific shape, and as a former wide receiver, he's excited to see a role in the passing game.
"If you ask me, the potential is crazy," Gibson said to open camp.
Logan Thomas' calf injury has cast a shadow on the tight end room. The 32-year-old struggled with some nagging injuries last season -- his first removed from an ACL tear -- and the Commanders have been cautious with this latest issue. Behind him are Cole Turner and John Bates, who combined for 16 receptions last year. Turner is more of a pass-catching threat and Bates a better blocker, but getting Thomas back is paramount.
Finally, the offensive line is a massive question with four new starters. Andrew Wylie struggled against the Browns, though Howell took blame for the sack, and the interior of the line features new starters in Sam Cosmi (moved from right tackle to right guard), free agent center Nick Gates and Saahdiq Charles or Chris Paul at left guard. Offensive line was an issue last season as well, and while this group should hypothetically be better, that's no guarantee.
Rivera pointed out issues with technique and individual breakdowns following the Cleveland game, and those are things that must be worked out.
Howell in Bieniemy's offense: Quick attack a central focus
There's no doubting that thethroughout much of training camp. It was a staple of the offense Bieniemy helped build in Kansas City, and the Commanders hope it can be a staple of what's to come in Washington.
But it's also a major departure from what Washington ran last year -- "The past system, we didn't have much of a quick passing game," Thomas said two weeks ago -- and an even bigger departure from what Howell experienced at North Carolina.
From 2019-21 in college, Howell was sacked on 9.6% of his dropbacks, the eighth-highest rate among 165 qualifying players over that span. He also threw a ton of deep passes, averaging 10.7 air yards per attempt, 16th-highest among those 165 qualifiers. The NFL is a completely different animal: Only one qualifying quarterback last year averaged even 10+ air yards per attempt.
"The quick game is awesome," Howell said. "I love that part of the offense that we have. It makes my job easy, getting the ball out of my hands fast and we have some really good weapons on the outside."
That's not to say the long ball won't be there, though. Many sessions -- Friday's included -- have featured almost exclusively quick underneath and medium-depth throws in team drills before a deep shot at the end. Friday, McLaurin was the recipient of a perfect long ball down the left side.
One encouraging sign? In his lone start last year, Howell connected with McLaurin on a pass that traveled 52 yards through the air. The last Washington quarterback with a completion that long was Robert Griffin III in 2012.
Howell the leader: The same as he always was
Howell said he's been even-keeled as long as he can remember, something he learned from his father. Rivera notices.
"Sam is very level-headed," Rivera said. "He keeps himself pretty much like that. I like his decision-making as far as where to throw the ball, where to place the ball once he's thrown it. I think he's shown that he's got a handle and a feel for the playbook."
Howell's teammates echo the sentiment.
"He is the same dude every day," said rookie running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. "He comes out, he's not, like, too hype, but he has his motivational words that he'll say. If something's going bad, he'll bring us in and we'll talk about it before we break the huddle."
This is one area where Howell feels like he has grown in some aspects but will stay the same in others as a starter.
"I don't think it really changes anything, you know, obviously I try to do everything I can to make sure my group of guys is ready to go," Howell said. "I think the main thing with leadership is it starts with having relationships with your teammates and knowing everybody and knowing what gets everybody on your team motivated. So, I've learned kind of who my guys are on offense are this year, and I think by learning who they are, I can lead them how I need to lead them. I think I've done a good job of that, and I'll continue to do that."
Ultimately, though, for all the positives, it's a huge test for Howell. Seasons -- much less successful ones -- from quarterbacks of Howell's age (22) and draft pedigree are few and far between. So while Friday was an important step, it's just that: a step.
"It means a lot," Howell said. "To have this opportunity in front of me means everything to me, but I think all of my work is ahead of me, and I know this is only the beginning. I know I have a lot of work in front of me, and that's what I'm focused on right now."