Carson Wentz debuts for Commanders vs. Panthers, rookie QB Sam Howell shines

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Ron Rivera got a lot of what he said he wanted on Saturday afternoon.

His starters, who played in their first game as Washington Commanders, stayed within the playing window he hoped they would. They executed a long scoring drive that showed the depth of their rushing corps and the resiliency of the attacking line.

His starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, executed the attack efficiently and the rookie, Sam Howell, put on a show for a late rally.

Flawless, it wasn’t. By no means. But the Commanders’ 23-21 preseason opening defeat to the Carolina Panthers at FedEx Field, coming down to a field goal in the closing seconds, provided the clearest measure yet of how close they are to a playoff run and how they improve their performance. 7-10 record last season.

The loss also brought a close-up view of many players vying for spots on the list and gave others a platform to shine.

While many fans came to watch Wentz, it was Howell, the third-string rookie quarterback, who won the crowd when he rallied the Commanders with two touchdowns in the final nine minutes of the game. He single-handedly revived a sparse crowd and also helped lesser-known players make their mark, including Alex Erickson, who led the Commanders with 54 receiving yards and scored the leading two-point conversion.

The defense that has won the majority of battles against Washington’s attack in training camp didn’t turn out well, allowing the Panthers’ offense to convert more than 61 percent of its third downs.

For Ron Rivera, “judgment begins with win or lose.” That’s progress.

“You have a chance at the second and long time when you’re on the defensive, you have to keep that second and long time,” Rivera said. “There are too many thirds and too short mediums. That was the crux of what [defensive coordinator] Jack [Del Rio] and I talked about it, and we talked about it during the game.”

The commanders’ attack began with a three and out and then a fumble, courtesy of Antonio Gibson’s running back, who struggled with ball security in 2021.

“Very frustrating. I can’t take it,” Gibson said. “It’s a big, big league and that shouldn’t happen. I can’t help it, but move on to the next part, correct what I need to correct and stay moving.”

The energy increased as the game progressed. Wentz completed 10 of 13 passes for 74 yards in his 21 offensive plays. He didn’t throw an interception or touchdown, and for the most part, he finished off the attack cleanly.

“I thought he threw the ball well, I thought he threw it where he needed to,” Rivera said. “He threw a very catchy ball and delivered it on time. I thought he made progress as he should, thought he handled the huddle well, thought he got the calls and did what we hoped he would.

The team’s first heat ended when tight end Armani Rogers dropped a deep pass down the right sideline. The pass was on target, but Rogers, in tight cover, bobbled the ball as he twirled and lost control.

As the offense returned for its second set, Wentz completed passes of two, four and six yards to Rogers to take down a first, but the drive ended on Gibson’s fumble.

The Panthers scored on their ensuing drive to take a 10-0 lead — kicker Zane Gonzalez scored a 41-yard field goal to end Carolina’s opening streak — when Rashard Higgins waltzed into the end zone on an eight-meter reception.

But the Commanders came back in the way Rivera had hoped, methodically marching across the field on 14 plays for their first touchdown. Gibson sat on the bench for the series after his turnover, and rookie running back Brian Robinson Jr. took over.

Robinson finished with 26 rushing yards on six carries for an average of 4.3 yards. He said he was unhappy with his performance, but felt more comfortable with his role and his place in the professional game.

“I just felt, I’m here now, you know what I mean?” said Robinson. “I’m here to stay too. It was just a feeling of, I got a chance to show people who I am, and there’s a lot more to come.”

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To kick off the 82-yard drive, which began in the first quarter and continued into the second, the commanders received contributions from multiple playmakers. Wentz linked up with Terry McLaurin down the right sideline for a 16-yard gain. Robinson ran for 11 yards two plays later, and then, on third and four, Wentz linked up with veteran JD McKissic for a 15-yard catch-and-run to put the commanders on the Panthers’ 9-yard line. Three games later, Robinson scored out of the 1. Wentz and the Commanders were 3-of-3 on third downs in that drive.

“I thought that third ride was good for us to get out a little bit, stay on the field, convert some third downs and end up in the end zone like that,” Wentz said. “So in that respect I thought it was good. Of course a loss is never fun, but I thought we could learn a lot on both sides of the ball that was good for us.”

Rivera promised all three quarterbacks would play, and Taylor Heinicke took over at the start of the third series, with about nine minutes left in the second quarter. But he struggled with accuracy and rhythm with his receivers, finishing 4-of-9 for 21 yards, an interception and 12.0 passer rating.

Just as the crowd seemed to grow silent, Howell entered the game in the third quarter with about nine minutes to go. The rookie, a North Carolina fifth-round pick that was once predicted by some analysts to be a first-round pick, put on a show.

He completed his first pass. His longest completion went for 40 yards. His best run started with just over 11 minutes left. He linked up with rookie receiver Kyric McGowan for a 27-yard catch, then found Marken Michel for 17 yards and finished the drive by scrambling down the center for a 17-yard touchdown. Howell finished 9-of-16 for 143 yards and added two hasty touchdowns.

“I just saw the hole and just tried to stop it and run it and make the game,” Howell said. “I played ball a lot in college, so it’s something I’m used to. … A lot of people didn’t know I had that in me, so I definitely got a lot of comments on the sidelines.”

The commanders’ new battle song, a modification of the team’s previous one, blared from the speakers after his first score.

On his second, the fans were on their feet.

But toward the end, a 45-yard Panthers field goal sailed through the uprights to give Carolina the win.

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