Commanders' QB Sam Howell 'excited' for first start after 'working hard all year'

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Commanders' QB Sam Howell 'excited' for first NFL start originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

ASHBURN, Va. -- For the first time in his brief NFL career, Commanders rookie quarterback Sam Howell had the chance to throw with Washington's top wide receivers, specifically Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel, during practice.

The franchise hopes it's the first of many connections between the bunch.

With Washington officially eliminated from playoff contention Howell, 22, was named the Commanders' starting quarterback for this Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys, head coach Ron Rivera told reporters on Monday. The Week 18 contest will be the first regular season action of Howell's career.

"Our plan is we're going to start Sam," Rivera said. "We feel that this is an opportunity for us for Sam to show us what he's capable of."

Rivera's original plan was to start Taylor Heinicke on Sunday before inserting Howell at a later point. The head coach's thinking was that going with Heinicke -- who's made 24 starts over the past two years -- first, the Commanders would get to see Dallas' defensive gameplan before inserting a rookie who's yet to take a professional snap.

But after conversations with his fellow coaches and players, Rivera made the decision to start Howell and give the 22-year-old a full game's work. Heinicke will be the backup; last week's starter, Carson Wentz, will likely be inactive.

"We're really intrigued in watching and seeing what Sam can do as a quarterback in this league," Rivera said.

Rivera officially informed all three quarterbacks of his plan on Wednesday morning before the team meeting. The head coach said Howell was, understandably, looking forward to his opportunity and told Rivera he was "ready to roll."

"I was excited," Howell said. "I've been working hard all year and I was kind of waiting for an opportunity to go out there."

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A fifth-round pick in April's draft, Howell was selected by the Commanders with his development in mind. Howell spent all of training camp as the team's third-string quarterback and never challenged Heinicke for the backup job. Howell was elevated to Heinicke's backup in Week 7 when Wentz was sidelined with a broken finger, but the rookie returned to the third-string role in Week 16 when Wentz returned to the active roster.

However, the Commanders' brass felt that Howell made significant strides with increased reps during the nine-week stretch he served as Heinicke's backup. The improvement Howell showed over that span helped convince Rivera and his staff that he was ready for the opportunity to start.

McLaurin, who's caught a pass from eight different QBs since arriving in Washington four seasons ago, admitted he's also excited to see what Howell can do in a game setting.

"I've seen some good things out of him this year ... he made some throws where the ball comes off his arm and you're just like 'wow, that's a nice ball,'" McLaurin said. "He has really good touch. And, I think he has a quiet confidence about him, so I'm really excited to see [what] he's like in a game-like atmosphere."

Despite the multiple changes that occurred at quarterback throughout the year, the relationships between the three signal-callers remained strong. Heinicke was supportive of Howell on Wednesday and said he's looking forward to seeing the rookie get an opportunity.

"He's been [helping us] all year," Heinicke said. "The ball comes out and he's got a really strong arm. He's a gamer. He's got a lot of heart."

Howell had positive things to say about both Wentz and Heinicke, too, praising the two veterans for all the pointers and knowledge they shared throughout the season.

"Those two guys have been so great to me this whole entire year," Howell said. "Even [Wednesday] at practice, they were awesome to me. I'm just so blessed to be in a room with those guys and they've really helped me come a long way in my development."

After starting all four years in high school, Howell earned (and kept) North Carolina's starting job as a true freshman and started three years in college. This season has been the first time in Howell's life since middle school that he hasn't been the starting quarterback on his respective team.

Like any competitor, Howell hoped to get the chance to play right away. By getting the chance to watch from afar and learn from a pair of veterans, Howell feels he's grown a lot as a quarterback and gained a new appreciation for the sport.

"I learned how much I really love football and me not playing," Howell said. "I learned how much I really miss being out there. It really just kind of made me appreciate the game more than I probably was at the time. I had so much fun running the scout team and helping the guys out, but I think just this whole experience this year of not playing ... it really made me appreciate football a lot more than I did.”

Howell's first start doesn't come with easy circumstances. The Cowboys' defense is one of the NFL's best. Dallas has plenty to play for, as a win over Washington combined with an Eagles' loss would give them the NFC East crown and potentially the No. 1 overall seed.

Given the circumstances, Rivera made it clear the team isn't going to judge Howell on just one game. The head coach is looking forward to seeing how he prepares for the game as a starter, though, and hopes to see improvement in his footwork and overall decision-making come Sunday.

When Rivera declined to name a starter for Week 18 on Monday, he made it clear that regardless of his decision, the team was "playing to win." Howell is on the same page.

"To win," Howell said when asked what would make a successful first start. "I don't take any games for granted. This game is the most important game of my life. ... We're playing to win no matter if we can't go to the playoffs."