Eliminated from postseason contention, the Washington Commanders (7-8-1) are reshuffling the quarterback deck one last time to close out the 2022 season.
Washington will start rookie Sam Howell under center Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys (12-4), coach Ron Rivera announced Wednesday. This week's game will mark Howell's first regular-season action since being selected in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. Meanwhile, Carson Wentz will likely be inactive for the season finale.
NFL Network Insider Mike Garafolo reported earlier Wednesday that both Howell and Taylor Heinicke were expected to play against Dallas. Howell was then seen taking first-team reps in practice ahead of Heinicke, followed by Rivera's announcement.
"Well, I think first, initially, is obviously, it would be his first start, and it would become a little bit of a circus, you know, having to deal with all of the things that come with being a starter, but also, you look at the opponent, and who you're playing and what they're playing for," Rivera said, describing his thinking in naming Howell the starter. "Going with Taylor would have given us an opportunity to see what they're doing, how they're doing it and would have given Sam a chance to look at it if we had gone with Taylor.
"At the end of the day, at some point, if Sam ever gets an opportunity to be a starter, this would be the chance. Why not get it over with now and go from there? The most important thing is that we're really intrigued in terms of watching and seeing what Sam can do as a quarterback in this league."
Much was made of Ron Rivera's decision to swap out Heinicke for Wentz ahead of last week's game against the Browns, with Washington barely clinging to a wild-card spot and the head coach feeling like the team needed "a spark." Wentz had missed roughly two months after suffering a fractured finger, with Heinicke filling in dutifully and leading Washington to a 5-3-1 record in his nine starts. When Wentz initially returned from injured reserve ahead of Week 15, Heinicke retained his role as starter. But then the Commanders dropped two in a row, with Wentz replacing Heinicke late in Washington's Week 16 loss to San Francisco and producing a touchdown drive. Rivera proceeded to name Wentz the Commanders' starter for Week 17 with Washington's playoff hopes hanging in the balance.
In his first start back, Wentz flailed, completing 16 of 28 passes for 143 yards with three interceptions in a 14-point loss to Cleveland. Washington mustered just 10 points on 10 drives, and with the loss -- plus Lions and Packers wins -- the Commanders were eliminated from postseason contention.
Rivera wouldn't commit to Wentz or a QB change immediately following the Week 17 defeat. But now, with nothing to lose in Week 18, the Commanders are going with a rookie at the game's most important position.
Howell starting in Washington's final game could spell the end for Wentz in D.C. The veteran quarterback joined the Commanders via trade from Indianapolis last offseason. Wentz has two years remaining on his deal, but with no guaranteed money. Wentz could be traded again this offseason, but with cap numbers north of $26 million in each of the next two seasons, the 30-year-old could be a prime cut candidate.
Though Washington's season officially ends on Sunday, the Cowboys still have plenty to play for. Dallas can clinch the NFC East title with a win over Washington and an Eagles loss to the Giants. Add in a 49ers loss to the Cardinals, and Dallas claims the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. If the Eagles win or Cowboys lose, however, Dallas will be the NFC's No. 5 seed and play at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Super Wild Card Weekend.