John Keim, ESPN Staff WriterAug 25, 2023, 11:52 AM ET
- John Keim covers the Washington Commanders for ESPN. He joined ESPN in 2013 after a stint with the Washington Post. He started covering the team in 1994 for the Journal Newspapers and later for the Washington Examiner. He has authored/co-authored four books. You can also listen to him on 'The John Keim Report', which airs on ESPN Richmond radio, and follow him on Twitter @john_keim
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ASHBURN, Va. -- The understatement was delivered shortly after Washington’s second preseason game had ended.
Commanders coach Ron Rivera was discussing quarterback Sam Howell's performance, both in camp and in the game. He finished by saying Howell had a chance to be a “really good” quarterback for them.
“We’ve been looking for one,” Rivera said about the quarterback position.
Indeed they have.
If Howell hits, even if he’s just solid, then the Commanders can -- finally -- scratch "find a quarterback" off their to-do list each offseason. Since Kirk Cousins last played in Washington in 2017, the franchise has started 12 different quarterbacks due to a combination of injuries and ineptitude. In Rivera’s three seasons alone, the Commanders have started eight.
The quest goes back a long way: Since winning the Super Bowl to close the 1991 season, Washington has started 34 quarterbacks, including Howell. Only two -- Gus Frerotte and Cousins -- have started more than 40 games for the franchise.
But Rivera is hopeful this is the year Washington's QB carousel stops.
“We feel pretty comfortable, pretty good about the guy this year. We feel very strongly -- I know I do -- going into this season that we've got a guy,” Rivera said of Howell.
“For three seasons," Rivera added, "I've always felt that I had a question mark and now it feels like, ‘OK, this is pretty good.’ I mean, I'm pretty comfortable, pretty confident and I look forward to seeing it."
It’s been particularly bad since Cousins left. Look at the combined numbers in the past five years. The Commanders are 31st in total QBR, ahead of only the New York Jets. Their 95 touchdown passes rank 29th and their 75 interceptions were more than all but six teams. They also averaged 6.6 yards per pass attempt, ahead of only three teams.
Washington placed the franchise tag on Cousins twice. After the 2016 season, multiple sources said at the time that many inside the building knew Cousins would not sign a long-term deal. They pushed president Bruce Allen to trade him. Instead, Allen wanted to try to sign him and failed; they later received a conditional third-round pick in 2019 as compensation when Cousins signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings in 2018.
“Kirk’s age and what he’s done and how much he was improving, it was a no-brainer to keep him,” said former Washington coach Jay Gruden, who was with the Commanders from 2014-19. “If he didn’t want to come back, then you have to get something for him. This is a hot commodity. For us to get a conditional third is one of the worst things in the history of the NFL.”
The search for a starting quarterback has become exhausting. In the last five years, Washington has gone the trade route (Alex Smith, Carson Wentz) that cost the club a combined three third-round picks plus corner Kendall Fuller; it invested a first-round pick (Dwayne Haskins) and a fifth (Howell); it signed a low-cost free agent (Ryan Fitzpatrick).
“Every year it was a point of discussion. Every year it was, ‘Well, what are we going to do? How are we going to do it?’” Rivera said of the quarterback search.
The players feel it, too.
“If you look at the guys who've won the Super Bowl and been consistently in the playoffs, they have that guy that they've been relying on for some time now,” Washington receiver Terry McLaurin said early in training camp. “Obviously, we're still looking for that guy. We just want someone who's going to be consistently out there and continue to grow with us as a group.”
Punter Tress Way has played for Washington since 2014. He lived through the end of the Robert Griffin III era and the three-year stretch with Cousins as the starter. Since then, Way has witnessed one change after another. After watching Howell this summer, he was, once again, optimistic.
“Maybe this year, man,” Way said.
Washington’s post-Cousins quarterback journey has not been fun for the franchise. Here are all the QBs who have followed him:
Week 1 starter: Alex Smith
How acquired: Washington traded a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller to the Kansas City Chiefs, knowing Cousins would depart in free agency.
Other quarterbacks to start: Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez, Josh Johnson
The record: 7-9
What happened: Washington was 6-3 entering a Week 11 game against the Houston Texans. Though Smith was still learning the offense, he was effective. In the previous five games he had thrown a combined six touchdown passes to one interception as Washington went 4-1. But against the Texans, Smith suffered a fractured fibula and tibia to his right leg. It not only ended his season it threatened his life because of all the complications that followed. McCoy was hurt during his first start; Sanchez played poorly in his one start and Johnson went 1-2 as a starter. Before Smith’s injury, Washington had a two-game lead in the NFC East only to finish third at 7-9.
The quote: “Alex was a good fit, smart and efficient with the ball and accurate. He didn’t take a lot of deep unnecessary shots but he played good field position. When you have a guy like Alex you can build around him. You have a little stability. I don’t know if we were a Super Bowl caliber team but we were pretty competitive on both sides of the ball. We think we’re at a perfect place and then both quarterbacks go down…. We would have won a lot more if Alex had not gotten hurt.” -- Jay Gruden
Week 1 starter: Case Keenum
How acquired: Keenum was signed as a free agent in the offseason, but he started only because McCoy was injured and Haskins wasn’t ready.
Other quarterbacks to start: McCoy, Haskins
The record: 3-13
What happened: A little of everything. Keenum started the first four games with McCoy still feeling the effects of a broken leg suffered in 2018. Haskins replaced him in a Week 4 loss at the New York Giants and struggled. McCoy started a Week 5 loss to the New England Patriots that resulted in an 0-5 record and the firing of Gruden. A week later, Keenum led a win in interim coach Bill Callahan’s debut -- a win that eventually left them with the second overall pick behind Cincinnati, which selected quarterback Joe Burrow No. 1. Haskins started seven of the last eight games. In his last three starts, Haskins threw for a combined five touchdowns to one interception before a left ankle injury sidelined him for the season finale.
The quote: “I thought Colt was going to be ready. He was the wild card. Had I known he wouldn’t be ready, it would have made it easier to get more reps for Case [in practice]. That’s the biggest regret I had going into the season -- you can’t have a three-way competition. There aren’t enough reps to go around and it’s unfair to the QB. Case was more healthy than Colt and obviously more ready than Dwayne mentally and physically. He was a no-brainer going in.” -- Gruden
Week 1 starter: Haskins
How acquired: 2019 first-round pick
Others to start: Kyle Allen, Alex Smith, Taylor Heinicke
The record: 7-9
What happened: Due to the pandemic, there were no spring practices or preseason games. So Rivera gave Haskins all the first-team reps in practice with Smith returning from his leg injury and Allen signed as a backup. But Haskins lasted only four games before being benched. Allen started four games before dislocating his left ankle and then it was Smith’s turn. He started six of the final eight games, leading Washington to a 5-1 record and NFC East title. Haskins returned for two starts late in the season -- both losses -- then was cut. With Smith nursing a calf injury, Heinicke, signed to the practice squad in December, started a playoff loss at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The quote: “With Dwayne, he had a good finish to his rookie year. Not having OTAs and minicamp kind of handicapped us and not having preseason games. So the decision going into it was to give him as many reps as possible. At that point we also didn't really know about Alex. With Dwayne, unfortunately his growth and development didn’t come as quickly as we needed it. We never saw that next step. With the division the way it was, I made the decision that I have to give us the opportunity to win and so I changed.” -- Rivera
Week 1 starter: Ryan Fitzpatrick
How acquired: Free agency (one year, up to $10 million)
Others to start: Heinicke, Garrett Gilbert
The record: 7-10
What happened: Fitzpatrick admitted it took him time to learn Washington’s offense. He struggled enough during the spring that it narrowed the gap between he and No. 2 quarterback Heinicke entering training camp. But by summer’s end, coaches felt confident in Fitzpatrick. Then he suffered a hip subluxation in the second quarter of the season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers. He never played again. Heinicke started 15 games. The lone exception? A Week 15 loss at the Philadelphia Eagles when, thanks to him and backup Kyle Allen having Covid, Washington signed Gilbert off New England’s practice squad and started him four days later. Washington was 6-6 entering the final five games.
The quote: “There was a lot of optimism because of Ryan’s ability to throw the ball down field. His arm is an NFL arm. And even at that, at, at his age, he still had that ability and that's kind of what we were counting on. And then he gets hurt.” -- Rivera
Week 1 starter: Carson Wentz
How acquired: Trade with the Indianapolis Colts for two third-round picks
Others to start: Heinicke, Howell
The record: 8-8-1
What happened: Wentz started hot with seven touchdown passes in his first two games as Washington scored a combined 55 points. However, past issues caught up with him: He held the ball too long while receiving poor pass protection. Washington scored a combined 47 points in his next four starts (three losses) and he broke his right index finger in Week 6. Heinicke started the next nine games as the Commanders went 5-3-1. Washington benched Heinicke during a 37-20 loss at the San Francisco 49ers that dropped it to 7-7-1. Wentz played well in two series against the 49ers so the Commanders started him the following week and he played poorly in a loss to the Cleveland Browns that eliminated them from playoff contention. Howell started the finale.
The quote: “The biggest thing was the way Carson had played [in 2021]. They won nine games. He had good numbers. A lot of his numbers were in the top 10 of quarterbacking. So we were very optimistic about that and then for whatever reason, it just didn't pan out. That was a tough one because he worked so hard. He had a really good mindset in terms of communicating with his teammates, but then obviously it didn't work.” -- Rivera