Commanders coach Ron Rivera admits he didn't know what he had in Sam Howell last season

Sam Howell made an impression in the Washington Commanders' finale last season.

Not only on fans, but on head coach Ron Rivera, who said this week that he underestimated Howell until that Week 18 game.

The then-rookie quarterback led the Commanders to a 26-6 win over the rival Dallas Cowboys in his first NFL start. He completed 11 of 19 passes for 169 yards with a touchdown and an interception while adding 35 yards and a score on the ground.

The numbers weren't spectacular, but they were solid in his first NFL action. And the plays he made on the field showed poise and promise.

Until that game, Rivera didn't know exactly how much promise Howell offered. He spoke with Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer this week about his takeaway from Howell's NFL debut.

“I kept saying, 'F***, if I would have known this, I would have played him sooner,'" Rivera told Breer. "When you only have so much time to show it, it’s hard, I kept thinking, God but after that game, everything told me this kid, give him the opportunity and see what he does with it.”

Howell has since won the starting job in Washington. He went into training camp with a leg up on the competition and was named the starter over newly acquired veteran Jacoby Brissett.

Ron Rivera says that he wishes he had played Sam Howell sooner than Week 18 last season. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Ron Rivera says that he wishes he had played Sam Howell sooner than Week 18 last season. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

It's been a circuitous path to NFL starter, but this is where Howell was expected to end up after a tremendous sophomore season at North Carolina in 2020. He completed 68.1% of his passes that season for 299 yards per game with 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions while leading the Tar Heels to an Orange Bowl berth. The effort generated first-round draft buzz for the rising junior.

But his junior season didn't go as planned. Much of the offensive talent that surrounded him on the Orange Bowl team was gone. His completion rate dipped to 62.5%, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio dropped to 24-to-9. Howell subsequently dropped to the fifth round of the 2021 draft.

The Commanders, meanwhile, traded for Carson Wentz with the intent of reviving the former first-round pick's career. When that didn't work out, they turned to 2021 starter Taylor Heinicke. By Week 18, the Commanders were eliminated from the playoffs, and Rivera rolled the dice on Howell to see what he had in his rookie quarterback. He liked what he saw.

Howell did enough to earn his shot and will enter the season with a prime opportunity to start the campaign with a win over an Arizona Cardinals team expected to be among the worst in the league. Commanders faithful are hoping it's the beginning of the end of a decades-long struggle at quarterback in Washington.