The Commanders entered this season with so much hope. They had finished last season at 8-8-1, their first non-losing season since 2016, and had won their final game of the year over the Cowboys after inserting rookie Sam Howell in for his first career start in the NFL.
Head coach Ron Rivera set about reinventing the offense during the offseason, luring Eric Bieniemy away from the Chiefs to be Washington’s new offensive coordinator. With Bieniemy bringing the Chiefs offense to Washington and the flash that Howell had shown in his lone game as a rookie, there was hope that the Commanders might compete for the playoffs.
Now, as Howell prepares to head into another Week 18 game against the Cowboys, it’s painfully evident that this optimism was misguided. Things started out promising with the Commanders jumping out to a 3-3 start with some solid, albeit inconsistent, performances from Howell. But as Washington’s defense began to falter, Howell proved incapable of keeping his composure when being relied upon to score. Furthermore, Bieniemy didn’t seem to have many answers to slow things down for his quarterback.
That brings us to this week, with a Commanders team that is 4-12, losers of seven straight, and ranks 25th in EPA/play and 24th in offensive DVOA. It is widely assumed that Rivera and his staff will be let go following this Week 18 game against Dallas, and Howell – not too long ago viewed as a foundational piece of the franchise’s future – once again has an uncertain future.
Bieniemy brought the same offense, more or less, from Kansas City to the nation’s capitol. The longtime Andy Reid lieutenant runs a version of the West Coast that has smartly incorporated elements of the spread offense from college. At its core, this is a pass-happy attack that prioritizes getting the ball out quick to players in space. Much like the changes Mike McCarthy implemented in Dallas this year, Bieniemy’s system requires a decisive quarterback with plus athleticism to move around in the pocket if the initial reads aren’t there.
That’s really where things have faltered for Washington. There’s no questioning Howell’s athleticism – he’s ninth among quarterbacks in scrambles – but the young signal-caller hasn’t been quick enough in the passing game. His 2.83 seconds per throw is far too high, and it’s played a part in Howell leading the league in sacks.
Howell also leads the league in interceptions with three more than second place Josh Allen. Unsurprisingly, he also leads the league in turnover worthy plays. That said, Howell is eighth in big time throws, which perfectly reflects his gunslinger nature. That style can work in this offense, but only when playing on schedule with the timing structures of the passing game. So far this year, Howell hasn’t done that nearly often enough, and he’s become more erratic as the season has progressed.
That’s one of the reasons why Rivera opted to bench Howell after their Week 16 loss, in which the Commanders were eliminated from the playoffs. The timing of the move never made sense, as backup Jacoby Brissett is a known commodity and not the kind of player you need reps for in a lost season, but it was a move that had been coming for a long time.
Of course, Brissett never saw the field last week after suffering an injury in practice. That led the team right back to Howell, who got the start and played the worst game of his career against a dominant 49ers defense. Now, he’s getting one more start against the team where his career as a starter began. This will make him the first quarterback since Kirk Cousins in 2017 to start every game in a season for Washington. Just like Cousins in 2017, though, it means little: there is no consensus that Howell remains the long-term solution for the team going forward.
Spoiling the Cowboys’ season with a big game might change that, but the odds aren’t great. This Dallas defense thwarted Howell fairly well in their first matchup, which in turn bottled up the Commanders offense and held them to just 10 points. Given how Howell and this offense has only regressed since then, it’s hard to see a scenario in which the Commanders shock the Cowboys on Sunday.