Sam Howell learning some brutal NFL lessons from the ground up

The Washington Commanders played the varsity Sunday. There’ll be no game balls for owner Josh Harris or anyone else.

The Bills took them all back to Buffalo with them, along with a 37-3 win over the Commanders, who had the ball 11 times and turned it over five times — four Sam Howell interceptions and an Antonio Gibson fumble.

“You can’t lose the turnover battle like that,” said coach Ron Rivera, who doesn’t miss much.

It was a hard fall for a team that came into this game with a 2-0 record and the support of a renewed fan base still celebrating the exile of former owner Dan Snyder, though it was a reality check to see a sold-out rain-soaked FedEx Field filled with Bills fans. No shame in that. Bills fans travel as well as any fan base in the NFL.

Players were singing and dancing on the field in the pregame warmups, feeling good about their chances. “We have a lot of confidence every time we step on the field,” said Howell, who may have some of that Rex Grossman gene that wipes away the memory of interceptions.

He’ll need the short memory and the big arm. The league is coming for him.

It should be clear by now that the book on the 2-1 Commanders offense is to come after Sam Howell. I know that’s what every defense tries to do every week against every quarterback, but these defenses are now targeting Howell. 

The bottom-feeding Arizona Cardinals told you as much after their 20-16 loss to Washington in the season opener. “We knew Sam Howell is a mobile quarterback and we wanted to contain him and keep him in the pocket,” defensive lineman Carlos Watkins said after the game. He also likes to hold the ball, so it’s our job to get to him and make him uncomfortable. Our whole role upfront is to disrupt the quarterback off his spot. I feel we did a decent job of that today..”

They did do a decent job — six sacks that day. The following week in Denver, the Broncos had some early success doing the game thing, with four Howell sacks, until offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy adjusted and they came back from a 21-3 deficit to win 35-33.

The Bills, though, like I said, were the varsity. That Denver team lost, 70-20, on Sunday to the Miami Dolphins.

There was no adjustment for the Buffalo pressure, which led to nine sacks and just three points on a last-minute field goal by Joey Slye. Washington was one for nine on third-down conversions and netted just 230 total yards.

Next week will be another varsity opponent — the Eagles in Philadelphia. Guess what their defensive game plan will be?

It’s not so much on the young quarterback, who I think has NFL skills and guts. What I admired about his performance in Denver was how he never lost his composure while his team was down and made the throws he needed to in tough spots.

That looks a little less impressive this week.

The problem is that a weak offensive line can’t protect Howell. They couldn’t protect Carson Wentz or Taylor Heinicke last year and now they can’t protect their so-called quarterback of the future. You can look at the film if you want and parcel out blame. 

Three limited quarterbacks now in two seasons, limited either by lack of talent, intelligence or experience, and the common denominator is the same — poor pass protection, when what all three needed was the opposite.

The entire Howell experiment is strange in its timing. You typically don’t have a coach trying to wean a young quarterback in the coach’s fourth season, after three years with a combined record of 22-27-1. This usually happens early in a coach’s tenure or after a run of success with the departure of the veteran quarterback who contributed to that success. Not in year four of a mediocre coaching run.

Right now, it seems built for failure. Then again, it depends on what you define as failure.

A typical Rivera Washington season, in the coach’s mind, is not failure. When he was asked about his future with the new ownership, he told ESPN in early September, “If we go 8-8-1 this year and he (Harris) fires me and next year they win the division and 40 of the 53 players we drafted and it’s the same quarterback, I’m vindicated. Send me my Super Bowl ring.”

I’ve never heard a coach boast about being vindicated, particularly when it hasn’t even happened yet.

The “same” quarterback may not survive. After the game Sunday, Rivera said about Howell, “You have to give him opportunities to see if he can grow and develop.” 

But the Commanders may not be in a position to give him those opportunities. Bad offensive lines generally don’t get better as a season goes on. They break down under weekly pressure. The count is now up to 19 sacks in three games.

“You’ve got to learn from it,” Rivera said of the sacks. “That’s how it’s going to get corrected. If you don’t learn from it, it’s going to happen again. So we’ll coach it up, we’ll try to learn from it and we’ll see what happens.”

Sort of like his answer on the long snapper issue — we’ll see what happens.

By the way, struggling long-snapper Camaron Cheeseman seemed to handle the snap on Slye’s last-minute field goal just fine. See what happens when you see what happens?

You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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