ASHBURN, Va. — Ignore, for a moment, the fact that it’s Sam Howell — he of one career start — and not two-time MVP and two-time Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, and there are some similarities. At least in warmups. The tosses to get his arm loose are followed by little underhand flips and side-arm flicks and run-pass options and other movements that have been a big part of making Mahomes the league’s best. Heck, there’s even Eric Bieniemy whispering in his ear one moment and then yelling loud enough for all to hear the next.
Howell isn’t Mahomes. He won’t be Mahomes. But that’s not the point. Bieniemy and Howell are in new roles — the former a full-time play-caller, the latter an NFL starting quarterback — tasked with jumpstarting a Commanders offense that has been mostly dormant under head coach Ron Rivera and now-former offensive coordinator Scott Turner.
Bieniemy’s new system will surely include the gadgets and gizmos and trickery that existed in Kansas City. It’s a system that Howell said he entered training camp with “full command.” But perhaps the biggest difference will be the short passing game. The Chiefs have done it better than anyone else. The Commanders have not.
“The past system, we didn’t have much of a quick passing game,” tight end Logan Thomas said. “This system… I mean, you gotta have a quick passing game, because if not, everybody’s just gonna drop out, everybody’s gonna be underneath everything. Then you call the deep pass, and they’re ready to step up because they’re tired of giving up 7 (yards), they’re tired of giving up 5, they’re tired of giving up 6. And then you get 25 over the top, and if you look at Kansas City, that’s exactly what they did, too.”
Passes Thrown At or Behind Line of Scrimmage in 2022, with NFL Rank
Yards 914 (1st) 439 (22nd)
Yards per attempt 6.0 (2nd) 3.6 (29th)
Completion percentage 84.9 (1st) 71.3% (24th)
Expected points added per dropback 0.25 (1st) -0.35 (25th)
Touchdowns 12 (1st) 0 (T-last)
It’s the last column in particular that stands out. The Chiefs’ 12 touchdowns on throws at or behind the line of scrimmage last year were not only more than double the next-closest team but the most by any team since tracking began in 2006. The Commanders, meanwhile, were one of only two teams without a single touchdown on those plays last year along with the Seahawks, who had a much more productive downfield passing attack.
And that wasn’t just a feature of last year’s Tyreek Hill-less attack in Kansas City. The 2020 Chiefs had the second-most touchdowns on throws at or behind the line of scrimmage since 2006 (10). Tied for third most? The 2018 Chiefs with eight. It’s been a staple of Kansas City’s wildly successful offense, of which Bieniemy helped create.
Of those 12 touchdowns last year, six went to running backs, four went to wide receivers and two went to tight ends.
That’s why running back Antonio Gibson says “It’s super exciting — not just to talk about the running backs — what they do with everybody and, you know, what [Bieniemy] got in store for everybody.”
That’s why Rivera has stressed getting balls into playmakers’ hands early and often. On Wednesday, the first four plays of the first series of 11-on-11 work featured exclusively quick throws from Howell: a completion to running back Brian Robinson Jr., a miss to Terry McLaurin, then completions to Curtis Samuel and Dax Milne before scrambling before a check down to Gibson.
“One of the things that we talked about in bringing Eric Bieniemy here was getting the ball to our playmakers in space,” Rivera said. “There’s been several balls that have gone quicker to Terry, to Jahan [Dotson], to Curtis, with the occasional shot going vertical.
“Getting the ball in the tight ends’ hands, utilizing them even more, expanding their role, and then also not just handing the ball off to the running backs. … But also using them as a receiving weapon, getting the ball in their hands in space, whether it was coming out of the backfield or running their swing pattern.”
Samuel could be a particularly intriguing chess piece for Bieniemy to deploy. Last year, Samuel was one of three players — and the only wide receiver — with at least 650 receiving yards and 150 rushing yards.
“I think it fits him very well,” Rivera said. “Go back and get an opportunity to look at the stuff they did in Kansas City and look at how creative and inventive they’ve been over the years with the receivers that they’ve had.”
Of course the short passing game isn’t always a “quick” passing game. A major part of the Chiefs’ success was on screens, a throw behind the line of scrimmage that can take time to develop.
“A lot of it is you’re making the defense believe something is happening, and then it’s just a misdirection making something [else] happen,” said offensive tackle Andrew Wylie, a two-time champion with Kansas City who got a three-year deal with Washington this offseason. “All 11 players need to be dialed into the details. There’s a ton of different screens in this offense, and they are a big part of it.”
Unsurprisingly, the Chiefs were excellent on screens last year, ranking first in the league in passer rating (113.9), second in expected points added per dropback (0.20) and third on yards per attempt (6.6) on those plays. The Commanders, meanwhile, ranked 30th, 22nd, and 20th in those respective metrics.
While the quick passing game depends almost entirely on quarterback and receiver, the screen game relies upon athletic offensive linemen as well. Last year, veteran guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner struggled in that aspect. This year, Washington turns to Sam Cosmi at right guard and Saahdiq Charles at left guard, hoping for an infusion of youth and athleticism.
Cosmi in particular has looked sharp after moving from tackle to guard, garnering praise from Pro-Bowl defensive tackle Daron Payne.
“He’s one of those guys that’s pretty quick and agile,” Payne said. “It’s hard to do kind of some of the things that I like to do against him.”
He’s not alone.
“Just an incredible athlete,” Wylie said of Cosmi. “And the fact that they moved him down to guard and I get to play next to a guard of that athletic capability is just awesome to have. He truly brings it to practice every day. … It’s awesome playing next to Sam.”
Cosmi blew the 2021 NFL Combine out of the water, registered a 9.99 Relative Athletic Score (with 10.00 being the max) and posting “elite” measurements in both speed and agility. Normally pretty stoic when doing interviews, Cosmi couldn’t help but smile just a bit when envisioning leading the way on screens.
“I think it’s a really good package,” Cosmi said. “I think it’s going to be very beneficial for us in the season and opening up drives and doing that type of stuff. I’m a big fan of screens. Hearing that, knowing that, it’s big time.”
Success on the small throws may be the biggest step in improving Washington’s offense. With Howell, Bieniemy, an overhauled offensive line and plenty of capable weapons, they hope the right formula is finally in place.