Quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who came off the bench to lead the Washington Commanders on five touchdown drives in the past two games, will replace Sam Howell as the team’s starter in Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers, Coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday.
The move may hinder Howell’s chance to become the long-term starter in Washington, which could have a new coaching staff and front office in 2024.The Commanders benched Howell in their past two outings, both road losses, to the Los Angeles Rams and the New York Jets. Now, the team’s future at quarterback is shrouded in doubt.
On Sunday at MetLife Stadium, the Commanders trailed the Jets by 20 points when Howell threw his second interception of the game in the third quarter and Brissett replaced him. Howell finished with a 27.3 completion percentage, 56 passing yards and a 1.7 passer rating. In Week 15 against the Rams, Howell completed 42.3 percent of his passes for 102 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 50.5 passer rating.
“Right now, you watch him, and he’s trying to make the perfect play,” Rivera said Tuesday. “I think he’s reading a little bit more into some of the things that he sees out there. And I think he’s just got to settle in and trust what he’s seeing initially and stick with the offense.”
Brissett rallied the offense in both games. After the last-minute loss to the Jets, Rivera said he decided to go with Brissett again because of his experience and Howell’s recent tendency to press.
Rivera also believes the excessive hits Howell has absorbed (112 total, including 60 sacks) and his playing time have been tied to his decline. Howell has taken more snaps (925) than any other quarterback currently in his first season a full-time starter.
“I know it is still early on in my career,” Howell said after the loss to the Jets. “I am still a young player, and I just have to keep doing what I can to keep trying to get better and not let this moment define who I am as a player or who I am as a person.”
Brissett’s efficiency and production the past two weeks stood in stark contrast to Howell’s operation of the offense — and in some ways made the decision for Rivera. It may have also made the decision for Washington’s ownership and future regime.
Brissett signed a one-year deal in March to be the Commanders’ backup and will be the team’s ninth starting quarterback of the past four years. This is the third year in that span in which Washington has made a quarterback switch in Week 17.
Regular season starts (2020-23)
The Commanders were eliminated from the playoff race after their loss to the Rams, but the season’s final two games still carry weight. Washington is third in the 2024 draft order, and losses to the 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys over the next two weeks would tighten Washington’s grip on a top-three pick. Wins could make it harder to land one of the draft’s top quarterbacks, should the Commanders go that route to find their next starter.
Howell, a 2022 fifth-round pick, spent most of his rookie season learning behind Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke before getting his first career start in a Week 18 win over the Dallas Cowboys. Rivera moved forward with him as the 2023 starter in part because of the roster flexibility his rookie contract afforded the team. But Howell’s limited experience was compounded by the challenge of transitioning to a new offense, a new play caller and new faces on the offensive line. Washington’s offense, led by new coordinator Eric Bieniemy, has been the most pass-heavy in the NFL at 38.7 attempts per game.
Protection was a significant issue early on — and it was as much on Howell as the offensive line — but he played well for much of the first half of the season. In the first eight weeks, he completed 66.9 percent of his passes for an average of 268.3 yards. He threw for touchdowns on 4.2 percent of his passes and had a touchdown-to-interception rate of 1.6.
In the seven games since, Howell hit on just 58.6 percent of his passes for an average of 230.4 yards. He has thrown for touchdowns on 2.4 percent of his attempts and has logged a 0.7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
In relief of Howell, Brissett has averaged a 78.3 completion percentage and has thrown three touchdown passes and zero interceptions. His passer rating is 146.8.
Wide receiver Terry McLaurin, like Rivera, credited the difference to Brissett’s experience.
“He reminds me a little bit of [Ryan Fitzpatrick] in that they’re vets,” McLaurin said after the loss at Los Angeles, in which he had a career-high 141 receiving yards. “… They know what it looks like. Football is still going to be football no matter what scheme you’re in. So he understands leverages, he understands where he needs to release the ball. He put some great air under the ball for us receivers to track the ball.”
Brissett, an eight-year veteran, has started the majority of three seasons in the NFL — two with the Indianapolis Colts and last season with the Cleveland Browns. The Commanders signed him for his ability and his reputation as a solid teammate.
Following Sunday’s loss, Brissett said he had told Howell “this is going to be the hardest part of your career right now, and it’s going to feel like, man, that you’re in it by yourself and it’s snowballing.” He added: “But I know from being in this league, man, the good ones find a way to get to the other side. No matter how long it takes, how hard it is, you surround yourself with good people. I hope he leans on me as one of those good people to help him get through this, because I know I will.”