John KimESPN staff writer9 minutes of reading
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’s going to 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 already pleased them enough that coach Ron Rivera said he will enter training camp as the starter.
Howell still has to earn the position for the season, but took the necessary steps in the spring — after the work he’s put in over the winter.
“He’s very much shown us what we want to see,” Rivera said.
With one start on his resume, and playing for a new offensive coordinator in Eric Bieniemy, Howell will undergo a natural transition this season. But commanders remain optimistic that he has done the necessary work.
The Chiefs 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’s young,” Rivera said. “There was plenty of room for growth, and we know that, but he has good competence. He is mobile, he has good footwork, he has a quick move, good decision maker. He’s still learning to make those decisions, but he also has the arm talent, and that’s what 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 over the last year. For a while, he took the wrong drop on some throws — leading to pressure and what appeared to be a lineman causing trouble; his drops didn’t always line 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 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 also worked a lot with him on other aspects: making sure he didn’t overdo his drops; have your eyes in the right place; using a good adjustment to make sure he can throw. They worked together three days a week in the off-season, going over a different area each day.
One day it would be the intermediate and fast 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 using footwork in various offenses, tying it to various route concepts. After Washington hired Bieniemy, it got easier.
“I feel like I’m a lot better,” Howell said. “Once I knew we had EB [Bieniemy] I watched Kansas City film and saw what they were doing. I was able to match my footwork.”
Early in their spring practices, Washington’s coaches were pleased with his progress — pointing to his timing and rhythm in passing games as an example of improved footwork that led to a consistent base. Teammates noticed the change.
“You can see the change in his drop, how he throws it and everything, just the mentality he has,” said receiver Dyami Brown, a college teammate.
Pick up the mic
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 scrimmage — blitz looks, for example. It wasn’t all the time, but it was something that hadn’t been done in Washington before.
After two weeks, Rivera said, “A couple of things that really stood out to me was really his confidence level in terms of making calls, breaking the huddle, getting to the line of scrimmage, making his calls and then running the offense.”
Howell said he was shocked when they first told him they had plans for microphones, but called it a good opportunity to learn. He was curious about how he sounded.
“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 is also useful for the coaches – who cannot always stand near him on the training ground – to hear how he relays the information. In one instance, quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard said Howell hung too long on one part of the progression. After listening to it, they discussed what happened and how to deal with it in a game. The next day, Howell handled it properly and moved on to the next part of the progression.
It’s useful for quick counts and new calls at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s being able to take that coaching, that experience, and then move on to the next step and just try not to repeat the same mistakes,” Pritchard said. “We’re able to use some of that film and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to make a call here.’ We can hear it.”
Learning the playbook
As Pritchard said, the West Coast system “can get pretty wordy.” Washington used a numbers-based play-calling system last season under coordinator Scott Turner. But under Bieniemy it is now a word-based system – and can get up to about 20 words.
“This system in its purest form is trying to tell a lot of people what to do,” Pritchard said.
He also said it allows the quarterback to visualize the play as he speaks it by knowing what each word means for each position group. But that’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 much less; it was just different. If last year was like learning French, this year Howell is learning Spanish.
To speed up the process, Howell said he would use the voice memo app on his phone every day and record himself saying the pieces. How much time he spends recording himself depends on the number of plays installed that day in practice. Sometimes Howell spent 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 call every play we 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 freshman in high school, Boone went through different defensive line formations. From there, Boone said, Howell knew it like it was the law.
When Howell played at North Carolina, he often called Boone at 11 p.m. after leaving the football facility.
“He wanted to do that in high school, too,” said Boone, who led Duke to three bowl appearances as a starting quarterback and spent a year playing for Montreal in the Canadian Football League. “He and his dad would stay up late watching film. You didn’t have to tell him to do it, he just did it. He read it online that this is what quarterbacks do and how to be successful, and he took to himself.”
Teammates consider Howell a quiet person, leading 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 be the leader of the offense without a doubt.”
But Howell also needed to become more vocal with teammates, especially in the huddle. If he’s going to be the QB1 that Rivera calls him, he’s going to have to learn how to act like the starter. It means he talks more, which he does.
“He’s the QB1, so he takes charge of the huddle and gets people where they need to be,” Washington running back Antonio Gibson said. “If someone doesn’t step up, he takes control of it. If we don’t come out fast enough, he brings us back into the fold as a captain.”
Tight end Cole Turner said Howell has gotten more comfortable in front of the team and is showing a little more of his personality.
“He’s the one that starts to break down the huddle as a team — not just the offense,” Turner said. “He says something after a bad game; he is not afraid to talk to anyone. He is starting to step up and be the man.”
Howell said he hasn’t changed, it’s just that now he has 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.
But Brown said he wasn’t as vocal in college. It was the other skill guys — himself, running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams — who were more expressive.
“He’s more vocal,” Brown said, “and takes control of the team.”
Howell said, “The thing is, in Carolina, we didn’t stick together. So it was all signals. I couldn’t really talk to the guys. Now I can talk to the guys, tell them the plays. It challenges me more as a manager and gives me opportunity to be more vocal just because we’re in a pinch and I can see everybody.”
Howell said during spring practices he focused on talking to players, whether in a huddle or after breaking it, if he needed to “work something out.” He likes to be able to take charge — something Bieniemy has stressed to all of his quarterbacks, sometimes pushing them back to do a better job in that area.
“I can try to get guys going. Somebody’s feeling down about the last bit, I can say something to them,” Howell said.
It all boils down to one word for Washington: optimism. Now, Howell must continue to develop when the team returns to training camp on July 26 and reward that feeling.
“He’s getting more comfortable every day,” receiver Jahan Dotson said during minicamp. “He makes it happen, he makes throws a lot of people can’t make. He’s learning the offense as fast as anybody can. It’s going to be a fun season.”