ASHBURN, Va. — Earlier this month, Sam Howell’s offseason quarterback coach offered a prediction.
Anthony Boone, who has worked with the Washington Commanders quarterback since Howell’s freshman year of high school, tutored him again this offseason. Boone knows him well.
“He’ll make a lot of people happy in that building,” Boone said, referring, of course, to the Commanders’ facility.
That, the coaches would tell you, is the goal. The happier he makes them, the better off the Commanders will be this season. But Howell pleased them enough already for coach Ron Rivera to say he will enter training camp as the starter.
Howell still must earn the position for the season but took the necessary steps this spring — after the work he put in over the winter.
“He’s much shown us what we want to see,” Rivera said.
With one start to his resume, and playing for a new offensive coordinator in Eric Bieniemy, Howell will undergo a natural transition this season. But the Commanders remain optimistic that he’s done the requisite work.
The Commanders know a lot of people are hung up on Howell being a fifth-round pick in 2022. But the team is hung up on the progress he’s made over the past year, most recently how he handled this offseason, which included improving his footwork, leadership and communication skills and learning the new playbook.
“He’s young, we know he is young,” Rivera said. “There was a lot of room for growth, and we know that, but he’s got a good skillset. He’s mobile, he’s got good foot movement, he’s got quick twitch to him, good decision maker. He is still learning to make those decisions, but he’s also got the arm talent and that’s the thing that that excites us.”
Ever since Howell arrived after the 2022 draft, Washington’s coaches have focused on his footwork. They considered it a primary area to develop and it slowly improved during the course of last year. For a while he’d take the wrong drop on some throws — leading to pressure and what appeared to be a lineman causing problems; his drops did not always match up with the routes, leading to poor timing.
“You always want these young guys to understand how important it is,” Rivera said. “It’s a little bit different; the speed is different.”
By season’s end Howell had improved in that area, but it remained a work in progress, especially as Washington transitioned to a different offensive system under Bieniemy.
Boone worked with him a lot on other aspects as well: making sure he didn’t drift on his drops; having his eyes in the right place; using a good alignment to make sure he can throw. They worked together three days a week during the offseason, going over a different area each day.
One day it would be the intermediate and quick game; the next play-action throws and bootlegs, with deep throws to build arm strength and then the third day was all about the red zone.
But the constant focus was footwork. Before they knew Bieniemy would be hired, Boone had Howell use footwork for different offenses, tying it to various route concepts. After Washington hired Bieniemy, it became easier.
“I feel like I’m a lot better,” Howell said. “Once I knew we had E.B. [Bieniemy] I was watching Kansas City film and seeing what they were doing. I was able to match up my footwork.”
Early in their spring practices, Washington’s coaches were pleased with his progress — pointing to his timing and rhythm on pass plays as an example of improved footwork, leading to a consistent base. Teammates noticed the change.
“You can see the change in his drop, how he’s throwing it and everything just the mentality that he has,” receiver Dyami Brown, a college teammate, said.
Getting mic’d up
Rivera said they tried something new with the quarterbacks, starting with Howell in the first week of the OTA session: They put a microphone on him to hear how he called the plays, how he handled situations at the line of scrimmage — blitz looks, for example. It wasn’t all the time, but it was something that had not been done previously in Washington.
After two weeks, Rivera said, “A couple things that really stood out to me was really his confident level in terms of calling the huddle, breaking the huddle, getting to the line of scrimmage, making his calls and then operating the offense.”
Howell said he was shocked when they first told him their mic’d up plans, but called it a good opportunity to learn. He was curious what he sounded like.
“It’s something I’ve really never heard before,” Howell said. “Coach EB says it all the time, to overcommunicate clarity. Just saying one more word, one more code word that means something they need to hear.”
It’s helpful, too, for the coaches — who can’t always stand near him on the practice field — to hear how he relays the information. In one instance, quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard said Howell hung on one part of the progression too long. After listening to it, they discussed what happened and how to handle it in a game. The next day, Howell handled it right, moving on to the next part of the progression.
It’s helpful for snap counts and new calls at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s being able to take that coaching, that experience, and then move to the next step and just trying to not repeat the same mistakes,” Pritchard said. “We’re able to use some of that film and go, ‘Hey, we got to make this call here.’ We’re able to hear it.”
Learning the playbook
As Pritchard said, the West Coast system can “get quite wordy.” Washington used a numbers-based play-calling system last season under coordinator Scott Turner. But, under Bieniemy, it’s now a word-based system — and can get up to around 20 words.
“This system in its purest form tries to tell a lot of people what to do,” Pritchard said.
He also said it allows the quarterback to visualize the play when he speaks it, knowing what each word means to each position group. But it’s a lot to digest for a young quarterback — and even an experienced one.
“There’s a lot of information,” Howell said.
It’s not as if the previous offense was a lot less; it was just different. If last year was like learning French, this year Howell is learning Spanish.
To speed the process, Howell said he’d use the voice memo app on his phone every day and record himself saying the plays. How much time he spends recording himself depends on the number of plays installed that day in practice. Sometimes, Howell would spend an hour reciting the plays.
“Every time I’m in the car driving I have that thing playing,” Howell said. “It’s helped a lot. … I’m calling every single play we’ll have out here at practice to make sure I’m ready to go for the day.”
Those who know Howell aren’t surprised by his approach to learning the offense. During one of their first conversations when he was a high school freshman, Boone went over different defensive line alignments. From there, Boone said, Howell knew it as if it was the law.
When Howell played at North Carolina, he’d often phone Boone at 11 p.m. after leaving the football facility.
“He’d do that in high school, too,” said Boone, who led Duke to three bowl appearances as a starting quarterback and spent one year playing for Montreal in the Canadian Football League. “He and his dad would stay up late and watch film. You didn’t have to tell him to do it, he just did it. He read it on-line that this is what quarterbacks do and how to be successful and he took it to heart.”
Teammates consider Howell a quiet person, which leads them to call him calm, cool and collected during games.
“And boring,” running back Brian Robinson Jr. said. “That’s his style. That’s my guy. … The quarterback has to hands down be the leader of the offense.”
But Howell also needed to become more vocal with teammates, particularly in the huddle. If he’s going to be QB1 as Rivera calls him, then he must learn to act like the starter. That means talking more, which he’s doing.
“He’s QB1 so he’s taking charge of the huddle, getting people where they need to be,” Washington running back Antonio Gibson said. “If someone’s not lined up he’s taking control of that. If we don’t get out fast enough he’s bringing us back in the huddle, being a captain.”
Tight end Cole Turner said Howell has become more comfortable in front of the team, showing a little more of his personality.
“He’s the one starting to break down the huddle as a team — not just the offense,” Turner said. “He’s saying something after a bad play; he’s not afraid to talk to someone. He’s started to step up and be the man.”
Howell said he hasn’t changed, it’s just that now he needs to show those leadership skills. Last year, he was the No. 3 quarterback and he didn’t play until the season finale.
“It’s something he had, he just wasn’t able to show it,” Gibson said.
“He’s being more vocal,” Brown said, “taking control of the team.”
Howell said, “The thing is that at Carolina we didn’t huddle. So it was all signals. I couldn’t really talk to the guys. Now I can talk to the guys, let them know the plays. It challenges me more as a leader and allows me to be more vocal just because of the fact we’re in the huddle and I can see everybody.”
Howell said during the spring workouts he focused on talking to players, whether in the huddle or after breaking it, if he needed to “coach something up.” He likes being able to take charge — something Bieniemy has stressed to all his quarterbacks, sometimes forcing them back in the huddle to do a better job in this area.
“I can try to get guys fired up. Someone’s feeling down about the last play, I can say something to him,” Howell said.
It all adds up to one word for Washington: optimism. Now, Howell must continue to evolve when the team returns for training camp on July 26 and reward that sentiment.
“He’s getting more comfortable by the day,” receiver Jahan Dotson said during minicamp. “He’s making it happen, he’s making throws a lot of people can’t do. He’s learning the offense as fast as anyone can. It’s going to be a fun season.”