ASHBURN, Va. — Sam Howell needed to make a choice.
It was a day before North Carolina’s 2019 spring game, and the true freshman quarterback was playing rock, paper, scissors to determine which candidate for the starting quarterback job would get first chance at impressing the coaches.
Howell won (he chose scissors), and it was the only opportunity he needed.
Howell was competing with two redshirt freshmen for the job: Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder. Howell’s talent was obvious. But coach Mack Brown didn’t know how he’d handle the pressure.
But when Howell took the field, he delivered on one of his first throws.
“He turned it loose and zipped it. It was a perfect strike. We all said, ‘Wow,'” Brown said. “That was one of the first times we knew he wasn’t going to panic in front of people.”
There were hiccups: Howell tossed three picks early in those spring practices. He didn’t throw another one.
“I was worried about him losing his confidence,” Brown said. “He didn’t even blink. Very mature for his age and experience. He does not get rattled.”
Those traits helped enable Howell to go from becoming North Carolina’s first true freshman starting quarterback to being named the ACC’s rookie of the year. His 38 touchdown passes set an FBS record for a freshman. He helped elevate the Tar Heels almost immediately before leaving after three years as the school’s record holder in 27 different categories, including passing yards (10,283), passing touchdowns (92) and career passing efficiency (164.2).
Looking back to that first season at North Carolina, it’s clear why there’s a belief Howell can succeed in the NFL. From his preparation to his demeanor, Howell displayed key traits that helped him go from a prized recruit, to early enrollee, to program-changer.
It’s what Washington hopes he’ll become for a franchise that hasn’t had the same quarterback as full-time starter for more than three seasons since 1993, and hasn’t had a first-team All-Pro quarterback since Joe Theismann in 1983.
“He’s special,” said Brown, whose first season at UNC coincided with Howell’s, “and he’s the reason we’re sitting here where we are. [North Carolina] won five games in the two years before us, then went to four straight bowls. If you ask me the No. 1 reason, it would be Sam Howell.”
HOWELL SAT AT his locker on Sept. 27, casually chatting with a media member. Moments later, he was having a conversation with backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett, whose locker was next to his. Next, someone from the equipment room wandered over for a brief exchange. It would have been difficult for an outsider to have known just three days earlier, Howell had thrown four interceptions in a 37-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills — his worst performance as a pro.
“I put that game behind me and worry about the next game,” Howell said of his philosophy. “I go back to my process, doing what’s always worked for me and never losing that confidence.
“Ever since the game ended Sunday, I was excited for the next game just because I’m ready for another opportunity, I’m ready to go out there and play like myself again.”
The next game: He threw for 290 yards and one touchdown in an overtime loss to the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.
That demeanor was shaped long ago. Howell has always been low-key about his success and didn’t panic over his miscues.
“As far as getting emotional, that’s never been him,” said his father, Duke, who was his offensive coordinator at Sun Valley High School in the Charlotte area. “When he was in high school, he would throw a pick and I was up in the booth and I’d get on the headset and all I could do was hear him breathe. He never said a word. I’d ask what happened and he’d say such and such. I’d go back and watch the film and, yeah, that did happen.”
It’s part of why Howell is comfortable in tense situations. In the last two minutes of the half and regulation this season, he has thrown for a league-high 375 yards with three touchdowns to one interception. Washington has scored 34 points in those situations, including a tying touchdown on the final play of regulation Sunday. The 23-year-old Howell said in the huddle his job is to, “Just try to calm the storm.”
It’s what he did as a collegiate freshman as well. Howell created a buzz for himself and the Tar Heels program in the season opener — a 24-20 comeback win over South Carolina.
“They were so much more talented,” former Tar Heels offensive coordinator Phil Longo said of the Gamecocks.
The Tar Heels trailed by 11 entering the fourth quarter, but Howell completed 5 of 6 passes for 111 yards and 2 touchdowns in the final 15 minutes. He led two 90-yard drives. In his first collegiate game, Howell threw for 245 yards and two scores.
“When we were down, he’d say, ‘Coach I got this,'” Brown said. “He never blinked.”
“I never saw his face change,” said Dyami Brown, a former Tar Heels receiver and current Commanders teammate. “His demeanor was always the same. That helped us out because when you don’t see a quarterback panicking or freaking out, you feel comfortable. He always kept his composure.”
THE TRAITS HOWELL earned praise for later were evident in high school. Howell’s father said he would watch his games on Hudl, a website that posts game video.
“He would stay on Hudl and he would always just study it,” Duke said.
Duke said he and the quarterbacks coach were once watching film and trying to decipher another team’s coverage. Howell, then a sophomore, walked past, glanced at the screen, relayed the coverage and left.
“We were like, ‘Yep, that’s what they’re running,'” Duke said. “He had a knack for it, but a lot of that is from a lot of work.”
It didn’t end when he got to college; it intensified.
“He was always in the building,” Mack Brown said. “He has no hobbies. He’s a football junkie, a gym rat. Before he had his current girlfriend, it was Valentine’s Day and I said, ‘You got a date? Doing anything? He said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a date with Madden.’ We used to laugh and say he’s been in the building more than I have.”
Duke witnessed his son’s football evolution in the spring of 2020, when he lived at home during the pandemic. He’d catch Howell on videoconferences with his Tar Heels coaches.
“Just the things he knew, that he had learned in one year, they put a lot on him,” Duke said. “He was talking about defensive fronts, knowing the fronts to check to a good play. Most quarterbacks are studying coverages. He was more IDing the front, making calls, what the protections are, checking the protections. Stuff like that; he was light years ahead from the year before.”
Because Howell enrolled in January — cutting short his senior year of high school — he needed to catch up fast. Howell did not have a veteran quarterback to learn from. His two competitors were both redshirt freshmen. But, at a time when he should have been prepping for his final high school baseball season, he was displaying his promise in UNC’s spring practices.
“We went to town on learning the offense,” said Longo, now at Wisconsin. “We set up a schedule to meet and he didn’t miss a minute. He pounded the film and he’d come in every day and have a list of questions and have an agenda. He’s just incredible from a want-to standpoint. His talent was ahead in the spring. Everything else was by the summer.”
Personal quarterback coach Anthony Boone said that rapid growth is not surprising. He has experienced it while working with Howell as well.
“It’s not something you had to tell him; he just did it,” Boone said. “He read online, ‘This is what quarterbacks do,’ and he took it to heart.”
HOWELL WAS RECRUITED by almost every big-time program, including Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. Howell settled on Florida State but flipped to North Carolina after it hired Longo, previously at Ole Miss, as offensive coordinator.
At one point, Howell was going to also play baseball in college, a plan he abandoned after finding football success his freshman year.
Howell is a natural athlete. As a high school junior, he was a pitcher whose fastball was clocked at 93 mph. Howell’s ERA was 0.60, and pro scouts were interested.
He also played safety and linebacker in high school. One college coach told his dad he would have recruited him as a linebacker, had he not been a quarterback.
After his sophomore year in college, Duke Howell bought Sam a set of golf clubs. Sam golfs only between February and June, not wanting it to interfere with the football season. Two years later, he accompanied his dad on a golf trip and shot an 82.
“Never had a lesson, but he’s so competitive,” Duke said. “The average guy can’t stay focused. [Sam] competes on every shot. Every shot. It’s because he’s mentally tough; it doesn’t matter what sport.
“He’s a highly focused individual. The biggest trait he has, obviously he’s competitive, but his toughness is what he drives off of. Not just physically tough, but mentally tough.”
ALL THE ELEMENTS that made Howell a success in the past have led the Commanders to believe he’ll do the same in the NFL.
Before the 2022 draft, one member of the organization said they would have targeted Howell in the second or third round had they not already traded for Carson Wentz that offseason. Duke said the family was told pre-draft to expect Sam to be selected anywhere between the 20th and 40th picks.
Then he lasted until the fifth round.
“There was never a doubt in my mind that Sam [could] produce or play at this level,” Commanders offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “I was shocked that he went as late as he did.”
In January, Rivera named Howell the starter going into offseason workouts. He never relinquished the position and, after the second preseason game, Rivera named him the starter for the season opener.
“He’s now more than a serviceable quarterback,” Rivera said. “He’s a guy that’s growing. He’s a guy that can win. … I’m excited for it, excited for the team.”
Howell is showing that growth, whether by becoming more involved in film sessions — communicating with receivers what he wants on certain routes — or by understanding how to handle a situation better.
If Howell continues on an upward path, then Washington has a starting quarterback on an inexpensive contract through the 2025 season, allowing it to invest at other positions.
On Monday, Rivera said he expected Howell to have a strong performance against Philadelphia after struggling versus Buffalo. Howell had a career-best 76.4 quarterback rating — a week after enduring his worst (18.4).
“He’s a very resilient, very tough-minded young man. He bounces back very well at a lot of things,” Rivera said. “With him, you’re going to have some really good positive plus moments, there’s going to be some tough moments. He’ll get better and better. I’ve always been confident in him and just been very optimistic about his potential.”