ASHBURN, Va. -- It was never going to be Carson Wentz. It was almost Taylor Heinicke. Turns out it will be Sam Howell.
Ron Rivera considered going back to Heinicke for the Washington Commanders' season finale against the Dallas Cowboys before conversations with players and members of his coaching staff persuaded him to start Howell at quarterback instead. With Washington eliminated from playoff contention, and in the aftermath of Wentz's three-interception loss to Cleveland, Howell is set to make his NFL debut Sunday against an opponent playing to try to win the division.
“At the end of the day, at some point if Sam ever gets the opportunity to be a starter, this would be the chance,” Rivera said Wednesday. "Why not get it over with now and go from there? But 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.”
Washington selected Howell in the fifth round of the draft, 144th overall, last year. The former University of North Carolina star, who was once considered a potential top-10 pick, has been practicing nearly his entire rookie season behind Wentz and Heinicke and spent a few games in uniform as the Commanders’ backup.
Now he'll get a taste of full-speed pro football action.
“I want to prove to my teammates that I can do this job, and I just want to prove to them that I’m capable of playing in the NFL,” Howell said. "Really more than anything, I just want to prove it to myself. I know how hard I’ve worked my whole entire life to get this opportunity. I just want to go out there and make the most of it.”
Rivera said he never considered starting Wentz, who likely will be released after one season with the Commanders and go to his fourth team in as many years. Heinicke was the original choice, and a report emerged Wednesday morning that he'd start and Howell would also see action against Dallas.
But Heinicke was not surprised when Rivera opted instead to start Howell, given how Washington's season took a quick turn from being in contention to falling out of the playoff race. He also could be gone next season or return as a backup.
Still, Rivera and the front office need to see what they have in Howell, who could be in the mix as a franchise quarterback of the future.
“It really came down to finding out about the young man,” Rivera said.
While quarterbacking a team out of contention, Howell is set to face an opponent with plenty to play for. The Cowboys can win the NFC East with a win and a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles against the New York Giants.
“We want to win the game,” Dallas coach Mike McCarthy said. "You can’t go into the game and think you’re going to shift gears, I just think for the principle alone. We’re going to do everything we can to win this game.”
AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon in Arlington, Texas, contributed to this report.
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