Put them all aside — they’re just endgame indignities for a doomed regime.
Focus on what matters. Focus on quarterback Sam Howell. Even though there are many pressing questions for the Washington Commanders — including when managing partner Josh Harris will act — the most important one remains the same: Is Howell the guy?
Sunday’s loss wasn’t a step back. His growth still suggests a bright future. But after a few thrilling weeks, this was a heat check, a reminder that Howell hasn’t locked himself in as the franchise quarterback, especially because the leaders who ultimately will make that call probably are not yet in Washington. The performance puts a spotlight on Thanksgiving, when Howell will try to bounce back on a short week against an elite Dallas Cowboys defense.
Washington’s offensive struggles against New York weren’t all on Howell. He didn’t have any of the Commanders’ three fumbles. He didn’t have a brutal false start on the loss-clinching drive. But he did seem flustered by Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale calling fewer blitzes and more zone coverage. Howell didn’t handle pressure as well as he had against Philadelphia or New England, either, which made his throws less precise and led to three interceptions — his second multi-pick game of the year.
“It starts with me,” Howell said. “I got to do a better job taking care of the football. You know, I didn’t give my team a chance to win today. But we all just got to be better.”
“It’s always a step forward [for Howell],” Coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s learning; he’s growing. He made some mistakes, but he hung in there. He fought, gave us a chance to win.”
Early in Sunday’s game, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy used heavier personnel and committed to the run more than he had all year. During the week, Bieniemy told the team he “was going to do a better job calling runs,” right tackle Andrew Wylie said. Then Bieniemy got into a creative look for a deep play — three tight ends and one wide receiver, Dyami Brown — but Howell overthrew Brown, and cornerback Nick McCloud snared the interception. Rivera said of the throw: “Not sure if that was a good decision.”
“I thought it was the right read,” Howell said. “I just kind of threw it too far on the field.”
Howell’s most critical moment came late in the first half after scrambling for a touchdown. Giants safety Xavier McKinney shoved him, and Howell landed hard on his head and left shoulder. He stayed down for a few seconds. Doctors examined him, and he passed the concussion protocols, according to the team.
“I’m all right,” Howell said. “No major injuries or anything.”
For the first three quarters, Bieniemy stayed as balanced as he has all season. But Martindale, who blitzed Howell at a historic rate in the teams’ first meeting, switched it up and sent just 11 blitzes on 52 dropbacks (21.2 percent).
In the fourth quarter, with his team trailing 21-12, Bieniemy throttled up the passing game. Howell couldn’t lead a dramatic comeback, as he had against Philadelphia and Seattle. He threw two more interceptions — the first was tipped by a defensive lineman, and the second was a throwaway that Howell couldn’t get to the sideline, which resulted in a backbreaking pick-six.
Afterward, Giants defenders said they thought they’d confused Howell with disguised coverages and quick pressure, especially on the second interception. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux gloated about the Commanders struggling to pass — “Pressure breaks pipes,” he said — and defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence said he’d noticed growth from Howell.
“Seemed a little more confident back there,” Lawrence said. “I got a lot of respect for him.”
In the locker room, the frustration of Howell’s teammates boiled over. Here’s just a small sampling.
Wide receiver Jahan Dotson: “This one hurts a lot.”
Right guard Sam Cosmi: “This sucks. This is a winnable game. The fact that we couldn’t win the game — I’m kind of lost for words, to be completely honest with you. Sloppy football. Way too many turnovers. I’m just tired of not being consistent overall. One week it’s defense, one week it’s offense, one week it’s defense, one week it’s — like, can we just put a game together?”
So here is Howell’s challenge. His promise on the field is unquestioned. The vocal leadership in the locker room has either been absent or ineffective. As a first-time starter at 23, can he rally his teammates after a devastating loss? Can he do it at a time when, as left tackle Charles Leno Jr. acknowledged, it’s getting harder and harder for the players to believe the refrain they and Rivera have used all year — that there are games left, that they can salvage the season?
“We got to put this game behind us,” Howell said, and that’s not as simple as it sounds. The Commanders have struggled to compartmentalize this season; the best example is getting blown out by Chicago four days after an emotional overtime loss at Philadelphia. But therein lies the opportunity for Howell.
During his news conference Sunday, he praised the Cowboys as a “really good opponent.” But he reiterated “the main thing is we got to put this one behind us.” Now, in words and actions, he has to help his team do it.