Washington QB Sam Howell’s Numbers Aren’t Mediocre. They’re Bad.

Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post
The Commanders’ Sam Howell was under siege against Dexter Lawrence II and the Giants.

Last summer, there appeared to be reasons for optimism about the Washington Commanders. New offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, hired in February, appeared to vibe well with his most important new charge, quarterback Sam Howell, who was progressing with first-team reps during offseason sessions. The hard work paid off and Howell was named Washington’s first-string quarterback and then the starter. The Commanders won their first two games with Howell under center and nearly everyone thought the franchise finally found its quarterback of the future.

At the very least, Howell earned the right to be considered the Commanders quarterback of the present, and to some fans, anyone who thought differently was just a hater. And yet, a scan of objective metrics after seven games reveals a disturbing reality: Even for a franchise that has cycled through one quarterback after another during two mostly miserable decades, Howell is off to one of the worst starts of any Washington quarterback in that span.

With Howell under center, Washington’s passing offense is scoring about five fewer points per game than you would expect based on the down, distance and field position of each dropback, per data from TruMedia. That’s the second-worst performance from a Washington starting quarterback through the first seven weeks of a season since 2002, trailing only the late Dwayne Haskins’s 2020 campaign. Howell ranks 25th in expected points added (or in this case, subtracted) per game among qualified quarterbacks in 2023.

It’s easy to see how we got here if we use analyst Adam Harstad’s metaphor of the quarterback position being a stool with three analytical legs: yards per attempt, interception percentage and sack percentage. Harstad argues that pass pressure forces a quarterback to make trade-offs on those three legs. In his words, you can either sacrifice yards per attempt by checking down (passing the ball to safer targets to gain incremental yardage and reduce the risk of turnovers) or throwing out of bounds; sacrifice interception percentage by forcing the ball into tight coverage; or sacrifice sack percentage by holding on to the ball too long. Howell, though, grades out well in none of those categories, which means his stool isn’t unbalanced – it just has three stubby legs.

TruMedia estimates that sacks of Howell have cost Washington more than eight points per game, the worst figure among any NFL starting quarterback this season. He’s on pace to shatter the NFL record for sacks of one quarterback in one season. (David Carr was sacked 76 times in 2002; Howell has been sacked 40 times in seven games.) How much of that falls on Howell is, of course, a topic of heated debate, although the game charters at Pro Football Focus assign 15 sacks on Howell creating his own pressure, 16 to the offensive line and nine to other things like coverage sacks or early pressure causing a cleanup sack.

At the very least, Howell and the offensive line share blame, although it is worth noting Howell’s sack problem is not isolated to the pro level. My colleague Sam Fortier looked into Howell’s sack rate and found it was a problem for him in college, too, while ESPN analytics writer Seth Walder highlighted Howell’s propensity for taking sacks as a red flag before the 2022 draft. In addition, Pro Football Focus ranks Washington’s pass-blocking unit as the eighth best in the NFL this season through Week 7.

Interceptions are another issue. Howell has thrown seven, tied for the third most in the league. Four of those came in the 37-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 3, and the seven average out to a loss of about four expected points per game, the fifth-worst mark this season behind Daniel Jones, Jimmy Garoppolo, Mac Jones and Jalen Hurts. Howell also has 11 turnover-worthy throws (tied for fourth most), a classification by Pro Football Focus that includes fumbles in the pocket, throws that are deemed interceptable and actual interceptions.

Many of Howell’s supporters note his upside when everything goes right. Yet when he is facing no pass pressure (i.e. a clean pocket), Howell is averaging 7.2 yards per attempt (16th out of 32 qualified passers), with an average passer rating in those situations (99.2) compared to the rest of the league (98.4). However, his average time to throw in a clean pocket is 2.57 seconds (ranking just 26th fastest), perhaps reducing the effectiveness of his receivers and making Washington’s offense more predictable. It could also be why each of his three primary wide receivers – Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel – are averaging fewer yards gained after the catch this season compared to last season.

Now the big question: Who gets the blame? Fortunately, there is enough to go around.

Ron Rivera gets blame as both the head coach and the executive with the final word on player personnel, which holds true whether the problem is with Howell, his line or both. Bieniemy also deserves some blame as the offensive coordinator for a team averaging 20 points per game, a below-average mark. Perhaps that’s partly because he’s passing the ball so much (58 percent of the time, second most behind the Minnesota Vikings) without many screens or other quick passes. Howell gets some blame, too, for holding on to the ball too long, taking too many sacks that are not the fault of the offensive line and not adjusting his QB stool to find a single advantageous approach.

Maybe that’s something he and his coaches – whether the current staff or a future one – can fix. But there is no maybe about how poorly his performance stacks up, even compared to Washington’s subpar quarterbacking history, and until that changes you can’t expect the Commanders to contend for anything other than last place in the NFC East.