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Closing run of Commanders' season a referendum on QB Howell, OC Bieniemy

Sam Howell Washington Commanders Sam Howell - The Canadian Press

It's possible there are just four games left in Ron Rivera's tenure in Washington, the product of new ownership taking over and another lackluster season for the beleaguered franchise.

Josh Harris and his group that includes Magic Johnson will get to shape the organization's football operations once this lost season is over, leaving not much for the Commanders (4-9) to gain from the final four games.

Except for quarterback Sam Howell. This final stretch is a referendum on the second-year pro, who has the chance to show he deserves to be in consideration to start next season, and, by extension, it's an opportunity for offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy to prove he should be an NFL head coach.

Howell, a 2022 fifth-round pick out of North Carolina who slipped in the draft because of concerns about his size and a rough final college season, has shown flashes of brilliance as Rivera and Bieniemy have gone all-in on throwing the ball to make him the focal point of the offense. He also leads the league with 14 interceptions and has been sacked more than anyone else entering Week 14.

“Everyone knows the business we’re in, and at the end of the day, if you’re not doing your job, things will happen,” Howell said recently. “But us players, coaches, I don’t think anyone’s really worried about it. We’re just trying to do everything we can on a daily basis, and the results are the results. We try to do everything we can in our power to control what we can control and make sure we come in here each and every day and put our all into this.”

Entering Week 14, no one has thrown more passes this season than Howell, who has completed 335 of those 509 attempts and been sacked 58 times. He has thrown a pick-6 in three consecutive games.

Bieniemy and Rivera, who made the decision following last season to hand the reins to Howell, have praised the 23-year-old QB for growing and learning from errors.

“I know sometimes things look bad, but the thing that he does: He makes sure that he corrects the mistakes that he’s making,” Bieniemy said.

"The kid, he’s doing a heck of a job. He’s competing, he’s finding ways to make plays, but on top of that, he’s taking coaching. He’s fine-tuning all the little detailed things that’s helping him to become a better football player, and we just hope that he continues to grow with that arrow moving in the right direction.”

Marked improvement by Howell would also help Bieniemy, who joined Washington in part to work for a defensive coach and showcase himself outside the massive Kansas City shadows of Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid, who called the plays when Bieniemy was the offensive coordinator and the Chiefs won the Super Bowl twice.

Howell has worked closely with Bieniemy going back to offseason workouts and believes the play-calling has improved along the way.

“He’s starting to get a really good feel for how to be successful with the talent that we have here,” Howell said. “(As players) we've got to execute better in certain situations, but I think he’s doing a really good job. He’s grown as a leader, as an OC throughout the season, as he’s done probably his whole career.”

The numbers are a mixed bag. Washington's offense is decidedly middle of the pack offensively, 12th in passing and 22nd in scoring.

If that's enough for Bieniemy to get a head coaching job remains to be seen. He already interviewed for a head job with many teams, including the New York Jets twice, and figures to be a candidate again next year.

Howell's future isn't necessarily tied to Bieniemy, but the continuity would be a good case for him being the guy in 2024.

Otherwise, Washington would have an eighth different Week 1 starting QB in as many years.

Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, who this week on radio said he'd prefer not to go through another rebuild, believes Howell is the future — whether he's part of it or not.

“I feel like we found our quarterback for the next 5-10 years, and I truly believe that,” Allen said after the Commanders' most recent victory, Nov. 5 at New England. “I’ve seen a lot of great quarterbacks in my time, played against a lot of them, and feel he has the potential to be one of them.”