Friday, September 22 2023

As soon as the Washington Commanders hired Eric Bieniemy to be their offensive coordinator, Sam Howell knew what he had to do. He tried to learn everything he could about the Kansas City Chiefs offense. He had to study every detail of Patrick Mahomes.

Because everything he saw Mahomes do on film, that’s what he knew he’d be asked to do for the Commanders this season. The “wordy” plays, the quick reads, even the off-platform throws — Howell would have to be to Washington what Mahomes is to Kansas City.

And yeah, considering Howell has one NFL game and 19 passes on his résumé, that probably is a lot to ask.

“I’m going to be Sam. I’m not going to try to be anybody else,” the 22-year-old Howell said after a spring practice this week. “Obviously, I watch the film and I think Patrick does a heck of a job and he excels on extending the play and making those off-platform throws, and I think I’m capable of making plays myself. So I don’t try to go out there and be anybody else. I try to go out there and be the best version of myself.”

That, actually, is all Bieniemy, the 53-year-old former Chiefs assistant, is really asking of Howell as he prepares for what almost certainly will be his first season as an NFL starting quarterback. Nobody expects the 2022 fifth-round pick to suddenly morph into a knock-off of the two-time Super Bowl champion and two-time NFL MVP.

But Howell really will be doing what Mahomes has done, because Bieniemy is bringing a version of the West Coast offense he used in Kansas City to D.C. What Howell saw on the films is what he’s seen in practice so far. And all those off-schedule throws that have helped make Mahomes famous? The Commanders even have Howell practicing those.

Whether it can work or not remains to be seen, given the obvious differences between the Chiefs and the Commanders. They think they have the receivers to make the offense work in Washington, with the dangerous trio of Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Jahan Dotson, and they’ve already developed a strong enough rushing attack.


But they have no tight end who can come close to Travis Kelce. And most importantly, Howell is definitely not Mahomes — certainly not yet. The Commanders obviously know that.

What they don’t know is if he’s good enough to make their version of the Chiefs offense work.

“I think he’s a very consistent quarterback,” Commanders coach Ron Rivera said of Howell. “He’s a good decision-maker and I think he throws a good ball. I think it’s really just about understanding what is expected. And that’ll be stuff that we will talk to Sam about. More so than anything else, you look at a guy and you say, ‘What do you need from that position?’”

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Rivera said what the Commanders need from Howell is someone who “first and foremost can manage a game” — words that hardly describe what Mahomes has done in Kansas City. But his point is that Howell needs to do the little things first, like controlling a tempo, minimizing mistakes and making the right reads before he can see if his repertoire has any Mahomes-like magic.

And on that front, it’s been so far, so (mostly) good.

“Well, first of all, Sam’s a very competitive kid,” Bieniemy said. “And he’s smart. He understands some of the times when he’s making mistakes and the only thing he wants to know is what can he do to get better.”

Bieniemy has been drilling Howell hard in practice and pointing out when his quarterback does something wrong. “The thing that I love about him is that he’s always staying steady,” Bieniemy said. “His demeanor does not change and he’s very, very competitive. And I will say this, he autocorrects himself as well because he knows exactly what he did and what he should have done, which is a good thing.”

That’s just part of the praise Howell has received so far from his coaches and teammates. They’ve raved about everything from his confidence, his arm strength and his command of the huddle. 

[Commanders WR Terry McLaurin on QB Sam Howell: ‘He’s really led us’]

But it’s all mostly meaningless considering they’re just a few days into spring drills. Howell is still learning the playbook and it’s lengthy, complicated playcalls. And it doesn’t help that he’s had hardly any experience on an NFL field.

The system he’s learning, though, has been proven to work. No one needs to be reminded of how explosive it was in Bieniemy’s five years as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, when they ranked in the top six in offense every season and No. 1 overall twice.

Mahomes, obviously, had a lot to do with that. But that Andy Reid-West Coast system is still hard to defend when it’s working right. At least it is when and if the quarterback is good enough to do what he has to do.

Is Howell good enough? It’s obviously far too early to tell.

“In the infant stages, the thing that I have to do every day is just make sure I take myself back and understand that, ‘Hey, what’s real and what’s not real?'” Bieniemy said. “I’ve got to observe everything objectively and see exactly what type of growth are we making. I’ve seen growth at a number of different positions. I’ve also seen growth as an offense. Not at the rate that you would like, but there’s steady steps that are being made which are working in a positive direction.”

That should speed up once Howell gets all the plays down.

“Really the main focus has been trying to learn this playbook,” Howell said. “It’s kind of a wordy system, but it’s a really good system. I’ve loved it so far and I’ve enjoyed watching the film and studying what they were doing in Kansas City. 

“Obviously, they’re doing a really good job and we’re trying to come out here and get better at the system each and every day. And we’re making some really good progress.”

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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