Sam Howell’s painful lesson on life as an NFL starter

The former Tar Heels quarterback had a tough fourth start for Washington

Former UNC quarterback Sam Howell had his "Welcome to the NFL" game in the Commanders’ 37-3 blowout home loss to the Bills on Sunday. (Evan Vucci / AP Photo)

NORTH ENGLEWOOD, Md. — In baseball, the term for an outing like Sam Howell’s fourth NFL start is “wearing it”.

When a team builds a huge lead on the diamond, a manager will eventually, rather than run through all of their relief pitchers, decide to save wear and tear on the bullpen. He’ll usually go out to the mound and tell the current pitcher that he’s not getting replaced, no matter how many runs he gives up. He’s going to have to wear it.

Howell wore it against the Buffalo Bills in Week 3 of the 2023 NFL season. He’d had an impressive beginning to his career as a starting quarterback, winning one start against Dallas in the final week of his rookie season and then going 2-0 this year, including authoring an impressive comeback against the Denver Broncos last week.

Howell, the leading quarterback in UNC history before getting drafted by Washington last year, had completed well over 60% of his passes for 501 yards in the two games, throwing three touchdowns and running for another while having just one interception.

He got batted around by the Bills’ defense however, getting sacked nine times and throwing four interceptions as Buffalo hammered the Commanders, 37-3.

With Howell getting hit so hard and so often, the temptation was there to sit him down and avoid any more damage, both physical and to his psyche.

“The thing you think about is, ‘Do we take him out and protect him or leave him in to continue to learn and grow?’” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “We want to see him handle this. We want to see him do the things he’s capable of.”

Rivera, the former Carolina Panthers head man, made up his mind. He’d already been through the fire — might as well get a few more trials out of it. Howell was going to wear it.

“Part of it is these things happen,” Rivera said. “It’s going to happen in games. He’s got to learn. We’ve got to give him the opportunity to see if he can grow and develop.”

Rivera admitted that when he gave Howell the starting job, ahead of veteran and former NC State passer Jacoby Brissett, he knew a day like this was coming.

“It’s football,” he said. “It’s going to happen. There aren’t a lot of guys that go out there and always have success. You learn from losses as well as learning from wins. You’ve just got to stick to it.”

His offensive coordinator, Eric Bienemy, seemed to have a premonition this week might be a problem as Howell was preparing for the Bills.

“You’ve got to understand … hell, we’re going on Week 3,” Bienemy said earlier in the week. “We’re just glad he can take the snap and repeat the plays we’re giving him. He’s way past that, but there are still some things he can continue to add to his toolbelt.”

He also complimented Howell on his running ability with a prophetic, “When things ain’t right, he has an opportunity to make things happen with his feet. When things ain’t perfect, what are you going to do to make it right?”

Howell was very open about his performance on Sunday.

“We’ve got to be better at a lot of things,” he said. “That obviously starts with me. I’ve got to take better care of the football and do a better job leading my offense. A lot of things didn’t go right today, and that starts with me.

“The good thing,” he added, “is that the sun will come out tomorrow. We’ve got a lot of stuff to get better at, and I’m excited to go back and get better.”

Howell led the offense to the Buffalo 25 before back-to-back sacks moved him back nine yards and set up the first pick on a deep attempt. His third interception came at the Buffalo 1-yard line, and pick No. 4 was returned for a Buffalo touchdown.

“The turnovers were situations where I was trying to get the ball out of my hands and avoid a negative play, and I forced something,” he said. “They weren’t good decisions. All those bad plays, I’ll definitely learn from it. I’ll be better for it.”

Rivera pointed out that Howell had led the team deep into Buffalo territory before the early interceptions and also had the late-game drive that led to a field goal — both successes that could be built upon.

“We started to move the ball on the last drive,” Rivera said. “You felt, ‘OK, he’s settling in.’ He’s still learning. He’s a young guy, and he’s got to play. Really what it comes down to is him learning, growing and getting better.”

And that means that, every once in a while, Sam Howell has to wear it.