Why did the NFL’s 2023 passing yards leader sit on the bench last year?

    Through the first 10 weeks of the 2023-24 NFL season, who leads the league in passing yards?

    Patrick Mahomes? Nope.

    Tua Tagovailoa? Guess again.

    Sorry, you’re out of time. Believe it or not, with 2,783 passing yards, Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell sits atop the leaderboard.

    This is more or less Howell’s rookie season. After being chosen in the fifth round of the 2022 draft, he didn’t see the field last year until Washington’s meaningless season finale. Although he turned in a pedestrian performance — 169 passing yards, a touchdown pass and an interception — the Commanders upset the Dallas Cowboys. This game didn’t do anything to prove that Howell should be the starting quarterback of the future, and coming into this season, Washington was considered a front-runner to draft USC QB Caleb Williams in 2024.

    Instead, Howell has exceeded expectations with his league-leading passing yards. He’s also thrown 17 touchdowns — third most in the NFL — and while he has thrown nine interceptions, turnovers aren’t as much of an issue for him as they are for other QBs.

    Given Howell’s success this season, it begs the question of head coach Ron Rivera: Why was Howell on the bench for 16 of Washington’s 17 games last year, not even seeing garbage time before Week 18?

    Instead, Rivera went with a platoon of Carson Wentz and Taylor Heinicke. Washington was 7-5 through 12 games last season and in firm contention for a wild-card spot, but its success was more attributed to its defense. This was evident in some of the Commanders’ final scores in games they won: 12-7. 17-16. 19-13. Only once did Washington score 30 points last season. Howell’s offense has already scored 30 points three times this year.

    Most infamously, Rivera started Wentz in a Week 17 game against Cleveland last year with Washington’s playoff hopes in the balance. Wentz threw three interceptions in a 24-10 loss. Rivera was evidently unaware that the Commanders could be eliminated from playoff contention that day with a loss and a Green Bay win. Sure enough, the Packers beat Minnesota. Washington was out. This was all news to Rivera:

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