ASHBURN, Va. — Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell wanted to make a big play.
Deep in the red zone in a Week 2 matchup against the Buffalo Bills, he escaped the pocket, avoided two defenders and cut back inside — where several more Bills awaited. Two crunched into his left shoulder, a lineman smashed into his right and Howell crashed to the ground at the 6-yard line.
Howell, who was sacked nine times in the 37-3 Commanders loss, said hits like those — and the many he’s received this season — are nothing new.
“Growing up I used to run the ball 20, 30 times a game,” Howell said. “I’m used to, after games, hardly being able to walk. When I get done with an NFL game I feel great.”
How long his ability to take the hits continues will be a primary debate around Howell as he develops into what the Commanders hope will be a franchise quarterback. Howell has been sacked 47 times — 14 more than any other quarterback and two shy of tying a franchise record. He’s on pace to set an NFL record for most times sacked with 80, which would break David Carr’s mark of 76 set in 2002 with the expansion Houston Texans in 16 games. He’s been hit 113 times overall — fourth most in the NFL — causing concern that his long-term outlook as a pro could be affected by the punishment he’s taking.
But there have been some encouraging signs of late. His sack rate compared to early in the season has plummeted, allowing him to begin showing why the Commanders named the former fifth-round pick in 2022 their starting QB despite having 19 career passes under his belt.
That improvement will be challenged in coming weeks, starting Sunday against the New York Giants, who sacked Howell six times in a 14-7 win last month. The Commanders also face pass rushers such as the Dallas Cowboys’ Micah Parsons (twice), the Miami Dolphins’ Bradley Chubb, the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald and San Francisco 49ers’ Nick Bosa and Chase Young, Howell’s former teammate in Washington.
The Commanders’ situation was not ideal for a young starting quarterback. They had a new offensive coordinator in Eric Bieniemy, so Howell had to learn a different offense for the second consecutive year. Washington also had new starters at four offensive line positions. Additionally, Howell had started one game the previous year as a rookie.
“There’s growing pains,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said.
They don’t want those growing pains to turn into real pains — or injuries — for Howell.
“You want to make sure that you’re taking care of your quarterback,” Bieniemy said last week. “Some of that is self-inflicted wounds by him, but also too, I mean, we’re a team, and collectively, we all take our share in the blame.”
THOUGH THE HITS and sacks Howell has taken have lessened over the past three games, Howell is one of the most-sacked quarterbacks in recent NFL history.
Since 2001, 11 quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks have had a higher sack rate than Howell (10.2%) over their first two seasons. Of the other quarterbacks in the top 12, only the Bears’ Justin Fields is a current starter. Among the other names: Josh McCown, Cody Kessler, Kellen Clemens, Josh Rosen, J.P. Losman and Carr.
In the past 23 years, the average sack rate has been 6.2%.
Howell also ranks sixth in sack-to-pressure ratio during this period among quarterbacks in their first two seasons with at least 200 drop-backs (.31). The five ahead of him — Jimmy Clausen (.37), Dwayne Haskins (.37), Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Tannehill and Chad Henne — were all above .34. In the last three weeks, Howell’s ratio is .17.
The sacks not only can limit a quarterback’s growth, they also stunts an offense. NFL teams average 1.86 points per drive, but when a team has at least one sack on a drive that number drops to 1.00 points. Also, teams score touchdowns on 19.9% of drives; when there’s at least one sack it plummets to 7.7%.
Every time a quarterback gets sacked it costs a team 1.4 points off their expected points added total, according to ESPN sports analytics writer Seth Walder.
“It’s hard to sustain drives when you’re going backwards,” Commanders quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard said.
Rivera said the coaching staff has studied the analytics related to sacks, keeping in mind the impact on the offense and on the quarterback.
“We saw all those things,” Rivera said. “The growth and development [of the offense] is taking time. The more we play, the more they get into the offense and know the offense and develop the rapport with each other, the better we’re going to be. That’s what we’re beginning to see. At least I believe that’s what’s happening.”
FORMER NFL QUARTERBACK Kurt Warner understands what Howell has endured. He went through similar issues at various points in his career. He adjusted and earned a spot in the Hall of Fame because, he says, making necessary changes lengthened his career, allowing him to finish strong.
Warner, who did not play in the NFL until he was 27 years old, had a sack percentage between 5.5 and 6.5 during his first three seasons. But the next three years — two with the St. Louis Rams and one with the Giants — that percentage shot up.
Each season it was more than 8.5% with a high of 12.3% in 2004 with the Giants. But over his final five seasons, the number was under 5.8% four times, and in his last three seasons, all with Arizona, it was less than 4.5% each time.
“When you take hits, it slows you down,” Warner said. “And I know as young guys, we think we’re invincible. We can take as many hits as we need and we’ll just keep on ticking. But it doesn’t work out that way. You’re getting hit a lot, oftentimes it’s going to lead to nicks and bumps and bruises and things that can affect your everyday ability to play the game, to practice, to do all of those things that make guys great.”
The hits impact how long it takes a quarterback to recover, both physically and mentally.
“They force you to play the game a little bit differently, or at least to have to fight it more mentally when you’re not getting hit, you don’t think about getting hit,” Warner said.
Warner said he would also do what a lot of quarterbacks are doing now: getting massages, eating better, having more focus on taking care of his body during the week. But he also altered his game.
“I was a guy that studied our offense more than I studied the defense because I wanted to know what my answer was to everything that the defense did,” Warner said. “So the sooner I could see it, the sooner I understood where my eyes needed to be, the sooner I could get the ball out of my hands.”
He also said he’d take an “extra tick” in his drop to get a yard-and-a-half deeper away from the offensive line.
“All of those nuances can help you make things speed up,” Warner said. “Anticipation. Do you have the ability to anticipate to throw a ball before a guy is open instead of waiting for him to get open again. That was a trait I had. I don’t know how much that can be taught.”
But there was also this: He wanted to make the big play, which required hanging in the pocket a little longer. Warner averaged 7.9 yards per pass attempt, second highest among quarterbacks who played at least 100 games since 2000.
“I’m going to stand in here until the last minute, so you give me as much time as you can and then I’ll take the big hit for you guys and I’ll deliver for you on the backend,” he said. “And so part of that was just the nature of how I wanted to play and how I wanted to be a tough quarterback for my guys because I know the toughness that it takes to play all the other positions.”
Clyde Christensen, who was quarterbacks coach for both Andrew Luck and Jameis Winston, can empathize with Howell. Both quarterbacks were sacked often. Luck was sacked a combined 73 times in his first two seasons with Christensen as his position coach. Though Luck stayed healthy in his first three seasons, he missed 26 games over the next three and retired after one more full season because of repeated injuries. Winston was sacked a career-high 47 times in his one season with Christensen, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With Luck, in Indianapolis, Christesen used a picture of an F-16 fighter jet to remind his quarterbacks even the most valuable pieces of equipment needed to be handled with care. He also used the Indy 500 to deliver another message: It does no good to be leading at the midway point only to be knocked out of the race.
He recalls going into the Colts’ facility the morning after beating the Denver Broncos on a Monday night in 2015. Christensen was giddy.
“I go, oh man we’re sitting pretty right now,” he recalled thinking. “We’re going to make a little run.”
Then he walked into his office, the trainer came in and delivered jarring news: Luck had lacerated his kidney. He was done for the year.
“That ended our chances of winning the Super Bowl,” said Christensen, who also coached Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. “As the guys [they’re facing] get bigger, faster, stronger, the hits get more and they are cumulative. That’s what I’d always stress. A high ankle sprain leads to, now you’re getting hit a little harder because the guy you used to be able to avoid gets a solid blow. Then you get bruised ribs.
“Peyton and Brady had a genius to them — they’d go on these long streaks of health. That’s not because they’re soft — those are two tough guys — but they understand.”
Christensen said protecting quarterbacks is not just on the quarterback. But they are the ones who deal with the impact.
“I don’t care who you are,” Christensen said, “those body blows take a toll. The lesser experienced guys, all of a sudden they start looking at the rush and all of a sudden your feet are never set. … The next thing you know the first read opened and closed and your feet weren’t in the ground ready to pull the trigger.”
PRITCHARD SEES A toughness in Howell.
“He is somebody that will stand in there in the face of a free rusher and deliver a throw,” Pritchard said. “I mean, you’ve seen it numerous times over the course of the season.”
That’s partly why Warner likes what he’s seen so far of Washington’s quarterback.
“In just a short period of time you’re saying, OK, this guy’s got a chance to be a bonafide starter in the National Football League,” Warner said. “Now you start to ask, can he be special? Can he make the reads in the throws he’s supposed to make most of the time? We’ve seen glimpses of that from Sam in the early stages, and now it becomes about consistency and it becomes about growth, and it becomes about health as we’re talking about when you’re taking that many hits and sacks.”
Howell has run the ball 31 times, tied for 14th in the league — and 61 times fewer than NFL leader Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens. Against the New England Patriots in Week 9, Howell ran for 24 yards on a third-and-23, breaking through a tackle attempt by two Patriots’ defensive backs.
“I’m still young and maybe it’ll end up hurting me in the long run as far as taking all these hits, but I don’t know,” Howell said. “I don’t think [the sacks hurt] that bad. Just getting wrapped and tackled. Those aren’t bad. It’s the ones when you’re running in the open field and getting hit.”
He’s gotten better at sliding on early downs; on third down he’s more apt to try to pick up the first.
“There’s definitely a time and place for my aggressive mentality as far as running the football,” he said. “But for the most part, I just want to protect myself. I mean, I’m not running anybody over in the NFL anyways. So just try to do a better job of just try and protect myself and just move on to the next play.”
ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback who has watched all of Howell’s snaps this season, said he looks for a number of clues to gauge the impact of too many sacks and hits on a young quarterback:
Do their feet look frantic? Are they getting the ball out too quickly — getting to the top of their drop and finding the checkdown? Are you leaving a clean pocket? And do their eyes watch the rush?
“I don’t see any of that on Sam,” Orlovsky said. “I believe quarterbacks should be aggressive. You can’t play this position at a high level if you’re not aggressive. You can make the case he’s as aggressive a thrower as we have in this league. I love it because it leads to good plays.”
Walder said the last three weeks have been more encouraging for Howell from an analytics perspective. HIs sack ratio dropped and his sack percentage is at 4.6%.
Freed from a heavy dose of sacks, Howell is second in the NFL with eight touchdown passes and 1,034 passing yards over that span. He threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles followed by 325 against New England and 312 against the Seattle Seahawks. He ranks 12th in QBR at 62.0 during this stretch.
A big reason: He hasn’t let the sacks impact his approach.
“The biggest thing that you see is that his eyes are up,” Rivera said of Howell when under pressure. “So, when he steps up into the pocket, he’s not looking around as much as he’s looking downfield, and that’s one of the big keys I know that [Bieniemy] talks about all the time.”
If that continues, the Commanders can feel even better about their quarterback situation. It would allow him to play the way he needs to, while limiting the impact on his body — and the offense.
It would also end the narrative.
“I’m tired of talking about it,” Howell said.