EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Perhaps, to paraphrase an old English joke, we’re putting the wrong em-phas-is on the wrong syl-la-ble.
All of us have made this season a referendum on Sam Howell. Is Washington’s second-year quarterback good enough to be a starting NFL QB? Have the Commanders finally solved their most vexing on-field problem for most of the last two decades with the 2022 fifth-round pick? Or do they have to again dream of a high enough draft pick to take Caleb Williams, Drake Maye or the latest, hottest prospect?
But, maybe, we’re all wrong.
Maybe it’s about the other 47 active guys on Sundays, as well as the coaches.
Are they, collectively, good enough to help him?
Sunday brought another frustrating, losing afternoon the Commanders’ way, a 14-7 defeat to another lowly squad. This time, it was the New York Giants, who were playing without their starting quarterback and a whole bunch of their offensive linemen, on a 1-5 trip to nowhere before kickoff. And yet, as ever, just as for the Chicago Bears during this terrible month of football, Washington was exactly what ailed a struggling team.
No first-half touchdowns all season for the Giants’ woeful offense? No problem! Just isolate a Commanders linebacker, and enjoy — which New York did on both of its first-half TDs.
— New York Giants (@Giants) October 22, 2023
A league-low five sacks from the Giants’ defense in New York’s first six games? May I introduce you to the Commanders’ offensive line?
“It’s a lot of things that go into it,” right tackle Andrew Wylie said. “Sometimes, they’re bringing three or four people to a side. And we just, we’ve got to get the calls, we’ve got to execute the calls, being the most important and the main thing. We’ve just got to get it done. And we didn’t do that today.”
Jonathan Allen was to the point in addressing his frustrations postgame.
“I’m f—ing tired of this s—,” he said. “Tired of this bulls—. It’s been seven f—ing years of the same s—. Tired of this s—.”
For 30 minutes, the Giants kicked the Commanders all over the field, and only New York’s ineptitude kept the score from being worse. The defense did give the team a chance to win late, shutting New York out in the second half. Chase Young — with two more sacks, and helping keep Saquon Barkley in check on the ground — is making silly the idea (advanced by some who traffic in these sorts of things) that he’s somehow “freelancing” out there to no purpose.
But there were still way too many explosive plays, again, given up by the secondary — and this time, the Commanders couldn’t blame Emmanuel Forbes; the rookie corner was only on the field briefly Sunday.
Commanders, Ron Rivera still believe in Emmanuel Forbes, but how long will he ride the bench?
On the other side of the field, Howell had no chance. With the running game again stymied, he had to drop back, again and again, in third-and-longs. And he couldn’t get to his fourth step on five-step drops, much less a sixth step on a seven-step drop. He’s now been sacked 40 times, the second-most ever through seven games behind David Carr, who was sacked 43 times en route to an NFL-record 76 sacks taken in 2002.
“It’s a mixture of things,” tight end Logan Thomas said. “It’s being in the right protection. I think it’s being on your guy, and winning your one-on-one battle. In this league, you’ve got to win your one-on-one battles, especially against a team that makes you have one-on-one battles every single play.”
Washington adjusted in the second half, using three-tight end packages, bringing in a third tackle, Cornelius Lucas, to help with the blocking, using max protections, sliding Howell out on bootlegs left and right. And, a lot of it worked, at least much better than what the Commanders were doing in the first half. After racking up five sacks of Howell in the first half, the Giants had only one in the second. All good changes. But, why did that take so long to do?
Sam Howell and the Commanders’ sack problem is far from fixed (and might be getting worse)
Of course, Eric Bieniemy can’t wad up his whole game plan after a couple of bad drives, but New York made no secret of its intentions. On every passing down, it was going to overload a side, or stunt, play single coverage across the field against Washington’s receivers with a single-high safety, and it was going to keep doing that until Washington stopped it. But that means linemen have to win their blocks, and receivers have to beat their defenders. Neither happened very often until the Commanders were down 14.
Howell wasn’t blameless for Sunday’s offensive struggles. He missed a handful of open receivers, including Curtis Samuel on a second-and-9 from the Giants’ 15 early in the fourth quarter, on one of those rollouts. Samuel broke open at the goal line for what should have been an easy touchdown throw, but Howell was late getting the ball out to him, allowing the defensive back to recover. Two plays later, Joey Slye’s 27-yard field goal attempt was blocked by New York’s Leonard Williams.
Howell threw a bad second-quarter interception, on a pass toward an open (again) Jahan Dotson that was badly underthrown and picked by Giants corner Deonte Banks. And Howell was gifted a dropped INT by Kayvon Thibodeaux late in the third quarter, on a terrible pass Howell threw under pressure toward no one other than the Giants’ linebacker, who would have had a walk-in touchdown had he held on.
First NFL INT for Deonte Banks!
— New York Giants (@Giants) October 22, 2023
“We felt like we had a good plan, had answers for everything that they might do, and we just weren’t executing,” Howell said. “So, it’s frustrating. The good thing is our defense played well and kept us in the game, and made some big plays, huge stops, the turnover (forcing a Barkley fumble midway through the fourth). We’ve just got to do a better job offensively. If our defense gives up 14 points — and I think one of those touchdowns was on a short field, after my interception — we should win the football game.”
Amazingly, they had chances to do just that. They had two drives of 80 or more yards in the last 16 minutes — yet, somehow, managed not to score on either. Howell got enough time to take deep shots in the second half, mostly to Terry McLaurin, who was finally uncorked after having just a single target at halftime.
The second of those two long drives went 17 plays, after Daron Payne forced the Barkley fumble with 7:46 left, and went 85 yards. The Commanders had first-and-10 at the New York 12 with 1:10 left but could gain only 5 more yards. Howell’s final pass, thrown after he spun out of pressure on fourth-and-5 from the New York 7, was behind Jahan Dotson at the New York 1. It would have been a tough catch for Dotson, but he’s made tough catches before. Still, Howell could have made it easier for his receiver.
“It’s a ball that I catch nine out of 10 times, and I didn’t come up with it,” Dotson said. “I’m gonna let it hurt, feel this one, obviously, especially in a crucial moment like that. But I’m going to learn from it, and I’m not going to make that mistake again.”
The Commanders hoped to use their overtime loss to the Eagles at the start of the month as a building block, with three eminently winnable games before they again face the first-place Eagles next Sunday at FedEx. That hasn’t happened. They got mud-stomped by Chicago, barely held on against Atlanta and are now 3-4 after yet another loss here. The Eagles, Dolphins, 49ers and Cowboys (twice) are still upcoming.
It’s no longer early in the season. If we’re all still wondering about whether Sam Howell is the right guy, long-term, in Washington, we might be obsessing about the wrong person. Or, people.
(Photo: Dustin Satloff / Getty Images)