Sam Howell will be the first Washington quarterback since Kirk Cousins in 2017 to start a full season for the team, and it wasn’t by design.
He was benched for Jacoby Brissett a week ago, then told hours before kickoff against the San Francisco 49ers that he’d start. He’ll start again Sunday against the Cowboys, stalling the Commanders’ carousel of quarterbacks for just a little longer. But it’s bound to spin again soon.
Over the past two decades, Washington has started 22 quarterbacks. Only two — Jason Campbell (2008-09) and Cousins (2015-17) — started entire consecutive seasons. Stopping that trend that was on Ron Rivera’s lengthy to-do list when he took over as coach in 2020, but his regime’s failure to find a franchise star may soon lead to his exit.
“That’s the hardest thing for anybody,” Rivera said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re here or [if] you’re at one of the other places that are looking for [a starting quarterback]. … If you get a head-coaching job where there’s a guy, you better relish that, and you better succeed, I’ll tell you that right now.”
Rivera would know. For seven of his nine seasons coaching the Panthers, he had Cam Newton, healthy and in his prime. But since he arrived in Washington, Rivera has churned through nine starters acquired via free agency, trades, the draft and even the Patriots’ practice squad (hi, Garrett Gilbert).
“You see why such an emphasis is being made on protecting that guy [and] why these guys are getting paid the way they’re getting paid,” Riviera said. He then referenced his comments last season, when he was asked about the difference between the Commanders and the more successful NFC East teams. “I said, ‘Quarterback,’ ” Rivera recalled. “Trust me, it is.”
It would be simplistic and unrealistic to think a quarterback alone could have solved Washington’s issues the past four years. The team’s struggles have been due to myriad factors, including the deterioration of a talent-packed defense, a slew of costly personnel decisions and a history of poor player development.
But the inconsistency at quarterback has had a ripple effect. Think of the players who have had to adjust to new quarterbacks season after season, sometimes week after week.
“At the end of the day, the quarterback gets the keys to the car,” guard Sam Cosmi, who has blocked for five starting quarterbacks since 2021, said. “How he drives it and how he steers the car around, that’s the difference. … Every quarterback has a little bit different cadence [to] how they operate. Then the presence they have in the huddle, some quarterbacks take command. Some more experienced quarterbacks, they can tell you, ‘Hey, we’re doing this, this, this,’ or check the play.”
Pass-catchers’ routes are typically synchronized with the quarterbacks’ drops, and they have to adjust their timing on the fly.
“Guys who just have more experience know kind of where his hot [routes] are and different things that are built into the offense,” receiver Jahan Dotson said. “Another perfect example was Carson [Wentz] and Taylor [Heinicke]. It seemed like Taylor knew the offense like the back of his hand, whereas sometimes Carson, he had to pick up on things as he went. Those things just came second nature to Taylor.”
When Washington turned to the more experienced Brissett in Weeks 15 and 16 after benching Howell midgame, he immediately connected with receivers and rallied the offense, largely because he had a keen understanding of the opposing defenses.
“Consistency is a big factor, because you just get familiar with each other,” Dotson said. “It’s just like any relationship in life. The more time you spend around each other, the better you guys are going to be at communicating. You’re going to be on the same page more often.”
Terry McLaurin has yet to experience any consistency at quarterback, making his production at receiver all the more impressive. Since McLaurin entered the league in 2019, he’s played with 11 total quarterbacks and caught at least one pass from 10 of them — not including his 28-yard catch from tight end (and former quarterback) Logan Thomas on a trick play in 2020.
“I don’t use [quarterback turnover] as an excuse as to why I don’t do my job,” McLaurin said in July. “… Obviously, we know that’s something that factors into my position, but I’ve never used it as a crutch.”
Across the NFL, Washington is hardly the only team that has churned through starters to find its next franchise quarterback.
The Bills had 17 starting quarterbacks and only three playoff appearances in the 20 years after Jim Kelly retired. It wasn’t until they drafted Josh Allen with the seventh pick in 2018 that their fortune started to change. The Broncos have had 12 starters since Peyton Manning retired after the 2015 season. The Colts have had nine starters in the four years since Andrew Luck retired, the Saints have cycled through six since Drew Brees stepped away in 2021, and the Panthers are on their ninth starter since 2019.
The Commanders’ best hope for quarterback stability might come in the April draft, when they could have a pick as high as No. 2. But until Washington finds that guy, the carousel of quarterbacks and coaches will continue to spin.
“If a guy like Alex Smith, if he never gets hurt, I never come here,” Rivera said. “Because I think Jay [Gruden] and what they were doing would’ve continued. I mean, you get a guy like that, man, you run with it, I promise you that. It would’ve been cool to have a guy like that, it really would’ve.”