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UNC Football: Sam Howell leads comeback in NFL Debut

The former Tar Heel impresses in his first game.

NFL: Washington Commanders OTA Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

One of the bigger surprises of the NFL Draft was the wait that former Tar Heel Sam Howell had to hear his name called. Finally, in round five on day 3, he found out his destination was up I-95 to the DMV. The Washington Commanders seemed already set at quarterback with Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke locking down the top two spots, so Howell knew going into the season that he was really not competing for a starting spot.

Indeed, on the Panthers pregame, the Commanders’ play-by-play man, Bram Weinstein, indicated that the Commanders planned to treat this like a Redshirt year for the rookie. He’s a good card to have as they can easily let Wentz go after this season, and Heinicke is a free agent. A good season in practice can set him up as the quarterback of the future.

The Commanders were down 17-6 on Saturday when Howell entered the game, and his first two drives were nothing to speak of — a three and out and a four and out. On the third series, though, the Howell had a drive that was vintage Sam. On a 3rd and 9, Howell was in danger of having another drive stall out, but threw this conversion and ignited the team.

The drive only lasted two more plays, both great plays by Howell, and ended with his first touchdown in the NFL:

So it looks like the strides he made to run the ball last year served him well, as he saw a clear rushing lane on this drive while the Panthers were on their heels, and easily scored.

After a three and out by the Panthers, Howell was looking to complete the comeback, and the momentum from his previous drive served him well. He led the squad on a 13-play, 67-yard drive down the field to draw within one. He was solid during most of the drive, but one play stood out and had Twitter buzzing:

Again, Sam made a defense that had overcommitted to one aspect pay for a nice chunk play. He still doesn’t have a touchdown pass in the NFL, because the Commanders managed to drive right up to the edge of the goal line, and Howell decided to bully it in for his second rushing score. Since it was the preseason, Ron Rivera decided to go for two so that you wouldn’t be looking at a tie. The two pointer was too easy.

The comeback was complete, except the Commanders decided to hand the game back to the Panthers thanks to a couple of horrid penalties that gave Carolina first downs, and they were able to get a late field goal to pull out the win 23-21.

Howell finished the day 9 for 16, 145 yards in the air for a nice 9.1 yard average. He took two sacks, and also rushed 3 times for 19 yards and the two TD’s.

Enjoy the highlights now, as you’re unlikely to see Howell in the regular season unless things go off the rails for Washington. That he got the entire second half and Washington didn’t try to audition any other quarterbacks made it clear his spot on the team as at least the third QB is secure. He’s certainly making a good impression so far.

The Commanders next play the Chiefs in Kansas City on Saturday at 4 PM, and it’ll be interesting to see how much play Howell gets. With the condensed preseason, game two is now seen as the main dress rehearsal for teams, so Rivera may opt to give Wentz and Heinicke more time. Either way, Howell seems set to prove he shouldn’t have been sitting around for as long as he did.