NFC East Reporter
Ron Rivera’s future in Washington is definitely uncertain. The same is true for general manager Martin Mayhew, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, and everyone else in the Commanders’ organization. There’s only one thing any of them can do to try to convince new owner Josh Harris to keep them around for next season.
They have to win. They have to win now.
And they have to do it with a 22-year-old, fifth-round quarterback at the helm.
So while Rivera’s decision to officially name young Sam Howell his starting quarterback on Friday morning wasn’t surprising, it remains as bold as it was when the Commanders affirmed their commitment to him by sailing through the offseason without making a big, bolder quarterback move. They only added veteran journeyman Jacoby Brissett, who was clearly signed as Howell insurance.
Since the end of last season, it’s been clear that Rivera has been willing to risk everything and put this season and his own NFL future in Howell’s young hands.
“I feel confident and comfortable enough to say Sam’s our guy,” Rivera said on Friday morning. “There’s still more growth to go. He’ll continue to get better. We believe that.”
They have to believe that. And honestly, there wasn’t much of a choice here with three weeks to go before the regular season opener. When Rivera named Howell his “QB1” heading into training camp it was clear, as Rivera said Friday, “It was Sam’s to lose and he did nothing to lose it.” He’s been impressive in camp, went 9 of 12 for 77 yards and a touchdown in the preseason opener in Cleveland, had a very strong couple of days of joint practices this week against the Baltimore Ravens, and according to the coaches he has a strong-enough grasp of Bieniemy’s new offense, too.
“This is what I was anticipating,” Rivera said. “It’s what we all were looking for.”
That’s true because the choice of the starting quarterback was really made back in the spring. The $6.05 billion sale of the Commanders from the embattled Dan Snyder to Harris’ group was imminent and Rivera and company knew what that meant for them. New bosses often want to bring in their own people, especially when the old people have a 22-27-1 record over the last three years.
The impact of Rivera and Mayhew on the Commanders does go beyond the poor record, but that’s still their reality nonetheless. And knowing they had to win now they could have gone for another quick fix at the most important position to have a better shot at saving their jobs. They could have jumped head-first into the bidding for Derek Carr, or tried to out-maneuver the Jets for Aaron Rodgers. Or they could have even gone for a lesser — but still bigger — move to sign Jimmy Garoppolo or Baker Mayfield.
With the defense the Commanders have — one that finished ranked third in the NFL last season — and offensive weapons like receivers Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson and running back Brian Robinson, a true upgrade at quarterback could have made all the difference. They were 8-8-1 last season in the best division in football, despite some awful quarterback play from Taylor Heinicke and Carson Wentz. Adding even Carr or Garoppolo could have made them contenders right now.
But instead of a short-term fix for a long-term problem, Rivera did something that tends to be unusual in sports: He did what was best for the franchise, not for himself.
That could bite him in the end, for sure, no matter how good Howell turns out to be. It’s just an unavoidable fact in the NFL that young quarterbacks struggle. Even for the best ones — future Hall of Famers — it’s often a roller-coaster ride early in their careers. And in a division that had three teams make the playoffs last season, with three accomplished, $160 million-plus quarterbacks, the road in front of Howell is all very uphill.
The Commanders believe in his talent, though. They think they saw it in the regular season finale last season when he completed 11 of 19 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown in a 26-6 win over Dallas and ran five times for 35 yards and a touchdown, too. He gave them a reason to believe he’ll have a bright future — eventually.
Still, this isn’t a blue-chip prospect being given the keys to the franchise. There were reasons Howell slipped all the way to the fifth round. There were questions among scouts and executives about his accuracy, the timing on his throws, and his ability read defenses. He undoubtedly came with a big arm and talent, but nobody thought he was ready to step right into a big role.
Is he ready now? The best reason to hope is that neither Rivera nor Bieniemy were going to put their futures in the hands of someone who couldn’t play. That’s particularly true of Bieniemy, who left the cushy, ring-filled world of Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City to try to revive his future head-coaching prospects in Washington.
He knew what he was getting into. He knew he had to work wonders in this job. And he knew his quarterback would be Howell. Yet he still believed Washington was the right place for him to be.
It is a risk, though, and there’s no way around that. Because if they’re wrong, they’re gone. Even though Rivera and Mayhew steadied the franchise through the most tumultuous years of the Snyder Error and built a strong base of young talent, they know Harris needs to see results — and probably right now. There may be sweeping changes coming in the offseason anyway. But if Howell can’t lead them all to the playoffs, big changes are assured.
Commanders players ‘concerned’ with Eric Bieniemy’s coaching style
That’s why nobody would’ve blamed Rivera if he had gone the other route and took a shot at a better quarterback who could help keep his career alive. But he knew that the best interests of the franchise would be served by finding a long-term answer for their most vexing problem. He knew the best thing for the Commanders would be to give Howell a shot.
That was selfless and bold and definitely a risky bet. Rivera is literally putting his job on the line with this decision. He’s putting many jobs on the line.
Still, he insists that he believes — or at least hopes — that it’s a bet that will ultimately pay off.
“He’s in a really good spot,” Rivera said. “He’s now more than a serviceable quarterback. He’s a guy that’s growing.
“He’s a guy that can win.”
Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.
Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more