Why the Commanders are starting Sam Howell, and what's next for Carson Wentz, Ron Rivera

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Commanders, once again, made a quarterback change.

A week ago, it was designed to save the season. That failed. Now, it’s about eyeing the future.

That’s why the Carson Wentz experiment is over and rookie Sam Howell will start Sunday in the regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys. While the Commanders (7-8-1) can’t make the playoffs, the Cowboys (12-4) can win the NFC East and have a shot at the No. 1 seed.

Howell becomes the 33rd quarterback to start for Washington since it last won the Super Bowl after the 1991 season. He’s the eighth different quarterback to start in coach Ron Rivera’s three seasons.

Here’s what this latest change means.

Why did they make the change?

Because the last one did not work out and because they’re no longer in playoff contention. Washington believed Wentz could provide a spark to an offense that had not scored more than 20 points in four consecutive games and struggled in the red zone. Turns out they needed more lighter fluid than what Wentz provided -- a lot more.

With one game left and no playoffs on the line and Wentz’s future in Washington now more defined, it makes sense to play others who might have a future here.

Rivera nearly turned back to Heinicke in Sunday’s loss to Cleveland, but a 21-play touchdown drive near the end of the first half -- with 17 runs -- convinced Rivera to stick with Wentz. By the time he was about to reconsider it, the Browns had taken a two-touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter.

What does this mean for Wentz?

He’s likely done in Washington.

Wentz does not have any guaranteed money left on the final two years of his contract besides the $4 million guaranteed for injury in 2023. His base salary of $20 million does become fully guaranteed on the third day of the new league year in mid-March. He would count $26.2 million on the salary cap if he’s on the roster all season.

But the key for Washington: He can be cut without any salary-cap hit.

If Washington had won last week, it would risk that $4 million sum for a playoff berth. In this situation, there’s no reason to carry over any money when you know the marriage is over.

The Commanders swung big for Wentz last season, aggressively trading two third-round picks to the Colts for him after missing out on Russell Wilson and inquiring about almost every quarterback other than elite players they knew wouldn’t be available (Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen).

They hoped Wentz’s mobility would be good enough. It wasn’t. They hoped he could spread the ball to more parts of the field because of his strong arm. It didn’t happen enough. There were other issues that hampered Wentz, whether it was protection or playcalls or having to learn a new offense for the first time in his career. But bottom line, in his past five starts, Washington scored a combined 57 points.

Does Wentz's failure put Rivera's job in jeopardy?

If ownership wasn’t about to change then it might. But if the team had finished with a winning record and made the playoffs, then Wentz’s failure wouldn’t be as big an issue. They could have then cut him and built off a solid season. Instead, it’s possible the Commanders finish with a third consecutive seven-win season and the Wentz move didn’t work.

But his acquisition was a collective organizational failure. Team sources say it wasn’t just one person pushing for Wentz -- and owner Dan Snyder wanted them to be aggressive in closing the deal, leading to two third-round draft picks being sent to Indianapolis. Sources say the Colts would have released him otherwise. However, if the football side sold Wentz as the answer to Snyder, then yeah, that could spell trouble.

However, with the team up for sale, if Snyder fired Rivera he’d owe him the final two years of his contract (which sources believe is at least $5 million per year). There also would be other firings to assistant coaches and likely in the front office. The total bill could eclipse $20 million, which means Snyder likely would let the new owner worry about any coaching moves. Why should he pay that cost?

It’s hard to predict when the new owner will emerge. The earliest they would be approved is the end of March.

If one owner emerges shortly after this season, it’s possible they let it be known they want a move made. Short of all that, the pending sale gives Rivera another year.

Who is Sam Howell?

A fifth-round rookie out of North Carolina. But he’s also a player Washington liked before the draft and would have considered drafting him a few rounds higher had it not traded for Wentz earlier that offseason. When he was available in that round, he became an easy pick.

As a junior, Howell was considered a top prospect after throwing for 7,227 yards and 68 touchdowns in his first two seasons. After losing multiple skill players to the NFL, his numbers dropped in his senior year -- his third as a starter -- throwing for 3,056 yards, 24 touchdowns and nine picks. But he did rush for 828 yards as their offense wanted to incorporate his legs more to offset the loss of receiving talent.

But it wasn’t enough to prevent him from slipping to the later rounds. However, Washington liked his arm strength, decision-making and quick release. The Commanders also like that, despite being only 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, he’s stout in his lower body, which makes him tougher to tackle.

Washington believes Howell has the potential to be a starter. If nothing else, he could become a strong backup.

Why didn't they go to Howell earlier?

Simple, they didn’t feel he was ready nor did they think he was better than Heinicke or Wentz for a team in a playoff push.

Rivera had wanted to get him into a game earlier, but was hoping for a blowout win to make that happen. That didn’t occur. They like how he performed as the scout team quarterback when he was the main backup for seven weeks with Wentz injured.

But one reason Howell wasn’t considered above the others was footwork, making sure his feet are in sync with the timing of the route. On some routes, it’s required they take one hitch before throwing. On others it might be two hitches. The timing of plays are impacted if the footwork isn’t right.

“In college, depending on the concept, I took the same drop for most of our pass plays,” Howell said last month. “Here, every play you’ve got to know the exact drop and know how many hitches the ball should come out to on each progression in the throw. That was foreign to me, but I feel good where I’m at.”

Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said they’ve seen steady progress, particularly with Howell knowing where the ball must be thrown and why. He said Howell can keep up in meetings.

“I’m really excited to see him,” Zampese said last week.

What does this mean for Heinicke?

He’s a free agent after the season, but Washington still values him as a high-end backup, according to multiple sources, so there would be a desire to re-sign him. But some of that could depend on whether there are any offensive staff changes and if he wants to stay after being benched.

But with Wentz likely on the way out, Washington could keep Heinicke as a solid backup who knows the offense. He could then compete with Howell, or they bring in another quarterback through the draft, free agency or trade.