“There’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic,” Rivera said, adding, “It’s really exciting.”
In the half, Howell looked sharp despite facing difficult situations (a few of his own creation). He relied on his mobility and arm strength and finished 19 for 25 (76 percent) for 188 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Most important to his coaches, he faced a somewhat realistic two-minute drill when the Commanders got the ball on their 21-yard line with 1:29 left in the half and down, 14-10. After a big sack, Howell led the team on a touchdown drive.
“Guys were kind of tired, so it was good to see guys push through that,” Howell said. “We do a lot of two-minute drills in practice, but to get one in the preseason against a different opponent, and to go down there and get seven instead of three, was big for us.”
The biggest concern was the reappearance of the sack problem. The two sacks Howell took Monday night for a total of 20 yards were potential drive-killers. The first, on the first drive, turned second and two near midfield into third and 15, and it looked like Howell’s fault because he held the ball too long.
“I just needed to relax,” Howell said afterward. “I was kind of just trying to make a play, trying to do too much. But especially in that position, early in the game, [I need to] just be smart, get the ball out of my hands and [not] take a big loss like that.”
The second sack, on the last drive, put Washington in a difficult spot on the two-minute drill, one of Howell’s toughest tests of the preseason. On the first play, a free rusher came off the edge to sack Howell for a seven-yard loss. It’s unclear whether a lineman missed a block or if Howell missed a protection call, but afterward, Howell took responsibility.
Yet the offense overcame both sacks. After the first, Howell delivered a 16-yard strike to tight end Cole Turner to move the chains, and the drive ended with a short field goal. After the second, Baltimore dared Washington to stay aggressive by calling a timeout with 1:25 left.
Howell got the unit in gear. He scrambled for eight yards and hit Terry McLaurin for 13 — though, in one of the most significant developments of the game, Ravens linebacker Kristian Welch landed on McLaurin’s right foot and hurt one of his toes. McLaurin grimaced in pain while trainers evaluated him on the sideline, but ultimately, Rivera said, X-rays showed no broken bones.
Down a top wideout, Howell targeted Jahan Dotson on five straight plays. He completed three passes for 54 yards, and after Washington burned its last timeout, Howell found college teammate Dyami Brown for an 11-yard touchdown.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Washington: Howell may not have a margin for error as thin as Carson Wentz or Taylor Heinicke had last season. Between the two drives with a sack, rookie defensive back Quan Martin made an athletic interception in the end zone and returned it all the way to the Baltimore 45. Last season, the Commanders struggled to force turnovers, and the defense gave the offense better starting field position than the opponent’s 45 only six times all season.
“Huge plus,” Rivera said.
The crowd seems aware of Howell’s tendency to sometimes hang on to the ball too long. On the first play of the drive following Martin’s pick, Howell patted the ball and a few members of the crowd yelled for him to get rid of it. This time, Howell hit Brian Robinson Jr. for a gain of eight. Washington’s screen game doesn’t seem to have fully clicked yet — one to Dotson went for six yards, and another to Antonio Gibson lost two — but Howell benefited from a lucky bounce.
For the second week in a row, Washington faced fourth and three. In Cleveland, Howell rolled out to his right and found Turner for a conversion, and in Washington, he threw over the middle to Dotson. Defensive tackle Travis Jones tipped the pass, and somehow, the ball fluttered down into the hands of its intended receiver anyway.
Three plays later, Howell hit Gibson on an angle route for a touchdown.
In the locker room afterward, Howell’s teammates were excited about what they’d seen.
“Super comfortable, confident,” Gibson said. “He’s got a little swag to him. To have a guy be able to extend and sit in the pocket and make those throws? We love it.”