Starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, efficiently managed the attack, and junior, Sam Hoyle, put in a show in a late career.
Flawless, it wasn’t. Not in any way. But the leaders’ season-opening 23-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers at FedEx Field, which came to a field goal in the final seconds, provided the clearest measure yet of how close they are to a playoff and improving. 7-10 record last season.
The loss also provided an up-close look at the many players vying for roster spots and gave others a platform to shine.
Although many fans came to watch Wentz, it was Howell, the rising quarterback in the third series, who beat the crowd as he rallied the leaders twice in the final nine minutes of the game. He revitalized the scattered crowd on his own and helped lesser-known players make their mark too – including wide receiver/returner Alex Erickson, who led the leaders with 54 yards and a two-point conversion.
The defense that won the majority of battles against Washington’s training camp attack came out superficially, allowing the Panthers’ attack to convert more than 61 percent of its third defeats.
“You have a second chance, and for a long time when you’re on defense, you have to keep it second for a long time,” Rivera said. “There are too many thirds and medium to short. That was the gist of what [defensive coordinator] jack [Del Rio] And I talked about him, and we talked about him during the match.”
She started the leaders’ attack with three and came out and then stuttered, thanks to running back Antonio Gibson, who struggled to protect the ball in 2021.
“Very frustrating,” Gibson said. “It’s a big league, and it just can’t happen. I can’t do anything about it but move on to the next play, correct what I need to correct and keep moving.”
Energy rebounded as the game continued. Wentz completed 10 of 13 pass attempts for 74 yards in his 21 offensive plays. He threw no interceptions or touchdown passes, and for the most part ran the offense cleanly.
“I thought he threw the ball well; I thought he threw it where it was supposed to do,” Rivera said. “He threw an easy ball and threw it on time. I thought he followed his lead the way he needed to, and I thought he handled the rally well, and I thought he took the calls and did the things we hoped he’d do.”
The team’s first streak ended when Armani Rogers threw a deep pass along the right lateral line. The pass was on goal, but Rogers, in tight coverage, swayed the ball as he spun around and lost control.
When the offense returned in the second series, Wentz completed two-, four- and six-yard passes to Rogers to get his first descent, but the impulse ended when Gibson faltered.
The Panthers scored in their subsequent run to lead 10-0 – kicker Zane Gonzalez netted a 41-yard field goal to end Carolina’s opening streak – when Richard Higgins ran into the end zone in an eight-yard reception.
But the captains bounced back the way Rivera had hoped, methodically marching down the field in 14 plays on their first touchdown. Gibson was put on the bench in the series after his spin, and Brian Robinson Jr. took over.
Robinson finished 26 yards flush on six buggies with an average of 4.3 yards. He said he was not satisfied with his performance but came out feeling more comfortable in his role and place in the pro game.
“I just felt, I’m here now, do you know what I’m saying?” Robinson said. “I’m here to stay too. It was just a feeling, like, I’ve had the opportunity to show people who I am, and there’s a lot to come.”
To begin the 82-yard drive, which began in the first quarter and moved into the second, the leaders received contributions from multiple playmakers. Wentz reached out to Terry McLaurin along the right sideline for 16 yards. Robinson ran for 11 yards twice later, and then, in the third and fourth, Wentz called veteran linebacker JD McKissic for a 15-yard run to put the leaders on the Panthers’ 9-yard line. Three plays later, Robinson scored from 1. Wentz and the leaders were 3 to 3 in the third defeats at that impulse.
“I thought the third drive was good for us to kind of get out there, stay on the field, turn some third dips and finish in the finish zone like that,” Wentz said. “As far as that went, I thought that was good. Obviously losing is never fun, but I thought there was a lot we could learn from both sides of the ball which was good for us.”
Rivera promised that all three quarterbacks would play, and Taylor Hynek took over at the start of the third series, with nearly nine minutes remaining in the second quarter. But he struggled with accuracy and rhythm with his receivers and finished 4 of 9 for 21 yards with an interception for a 12.0 pass rating.
Just as the crowd seemed calm, Howell entered the game nearly nine minutes early in the third quarter. The rookie, a fifth-round pick from North Carolina that some analysts once predicted to be a first-round pick, was featured.
Complete his first pass. His longest finish took 40 yards. His best streak started with just over 11 minutes remaining. He called wide receiver Kyric McGowan for a 27-yard catch, then found Marken Michel for 17 yards and finished the drive by scrambling in the middle to reach 17 yards. Howell finished 9 of 16 for 143 yards and added two quick touchdowns.
“I kind of saw the hole and just tried to bend it and run and do the play,” Howell said. “I ran the ball a lot in college, so I got used to it. … Not many people knew I had that inside of me, so I definitely got a lot of comments on the sidelines.”
The Leaders’ new fight song, a change to the team’s previous song, blasted off speakers after its first recording.
In the second, the fans were on their feet.
But in the end, a 45-yard field goal from the Panthers passed through the rolls to give Carolina the victory.