LANDOVER, Md. – Ron Rivera was asked point-blank.
Did he expect second-year quarterback Sam Howell, in his first season as a starter in the NFL, to have the types of growing pains he displayed during the Commanders’ 37-3 beatdown at the hands of the Buffalo Bills on Sunday?
Short answer: “Yes.”
“It’s football,” Rivera added, noting that not every player is going to play with success each time out. “It’s going to happen.”
Making his fourth NFL start, Howell threw four interceptions and was sacked nine times in his first career loss. The offense didn’t score for the first 59 minutes of the game and had five turnovers total.
“That’s unacceptable, as an offense,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “And that starts with our leaders and everybody who touches the ball.”
What Rivera and the Commanders will eventually confront at some point this season is whether Howell can be the one to lead them where the rest of the roster, sans the offensive line, is constructed to take them. Howell can answer that question himself and give Washington reason to invest in him as the quarterback of the future. If not, jobs – Rivera’s, primarily – could be on the line, as new majority owner Josh Harris and his partners look to chart a fresh course for the organization.
The blowout loss at home, in front of a crowd that appeared to be approximately 50% Bills fans, was an unsettling reminder of the gaps between the Commanders and Buffalo, which has established itself as a perennial contender with Josh Allen under center.
“I think there were some situations where I was trying to get the ball out of my hands and trying to avoid a negative play,” said Howell, who finished 19 of 29 for 170 yards passing.
The Commanders’ defense – despite inexplicably allowing Bills wideout Stefon Diggs to be wide open on a few occasions – largely held Buffalo in check, given the turnovers on the other side of the ball. The unit won’t be enough to save Howell and the offense against the NFL’s better teams. Washington's next game, on the road against NFC East foe Philadelphia, will be yet another test.
Howell said he will be his toughest critic this week leading into the game.
“You don’t just flush it. You watch the film, you try to learn from it,” he said. “Because that’s the only way you’re going to get better. You can’t just forget about it. Because it happened.”
Twice on Sunday, the Commanders entered the red zone. Twice, they came up without points. Both instances came while the game was a two-possession contest.
Rivera called them “missed opportunities.”
Howell said “the sun will come up tomorrow.”
Those are rosy summations – perhaps the only such ones – from the home side of the loss.
“It was a tough day for all of us,” McLaurin said. “It’s not just on him. I just want him to let him know that we got his back, and we’re gonna have tough days at the office. Some uglier than others.”
After the game, the Commanders locker room rallied around Howell. Running back Antonio Gibson, who lost a fumble, said “through a storm like that … he didn’t switch up on anybody.” Right tackle Andrew Wylie commended the North Carolina product’s toughness, saying that the offensive line deserves the blame for the sacks.
“We got to do a better job keeping him upright,” Wylie said. “We got to do a better job of giving him that tick, because he’s a baller. He’s trying to make plays. And that’s what we need out of him.”
Howell displayed that toughness in the second quarter with an 18-yard scramble to bring the Commanders to the doorstep; he broke tackles, showed elusiveness with a spin move or two and was dropped hard near the goal line. But Washington went four plays from inside the 5-yard line without scoring and turned it over on downs.
As the game was out of reach late in the fourth quarter, Rivera deliberated pulling Howell to protect the 23-year-old. But he and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy ultimately decided Howell should stay in to gain reps and experience that should only benefit him going forward.
After the Buffalo loss, Rivera challenged his team to respond to adversity.
“What you’ll really be judged on is how you handle what happens next,” Rivera said.
Washington escaped the season opener against a feisty Arizona Cardinals team and built a big enough lead to survive on the road against the Denver Broncos the next week.
“Winning masks a lot of things,” Rivera said. “The bare truth is out there right now.”
With Harris watching, is that a good thing for Rivera, Howell and the Commanders?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sam Howell's woes leave Washington Commanders with tough questions