Carson Wentz debuts for Leaders vs. Panthers, rookie QB stars Sam Howell

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

His players, who played in their first game as captains in Washington, stayed within the window of plays he hoped they would make. They carried out a protracted scoring campaign that demonstrated the depth of their rushing corps and the resilience of the offensive line.

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 the playoff round 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 as well – including wide receiver/returner Alex Erickson, who led the leaders with 54 yards and scored 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 their third defeat.

For Ron Rivera, “The referee starts with winning or losing.” This is progress.

“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.”

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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 match, and it just couldn’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 made no interceptions or touchdowns, and for the most part ran the attack cleanly.

“I thought he threw the ball well, I thought he threw it where he was supposed to,” Rivera said. “He threw an easy ball and threw it on time. I thought he went through his advances the way he needed to, and I thought he handled the rally well, and I thought he took the outgoing calls and did the things we hoped he would.”

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 a goal in their later career to advance 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.

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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 unhappy with his performance, but walked 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.”

Carson Wentz, QB’s new leader for leaders, settles in as camp starts

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 of 1. Wentz and Leaders were 3 of 3 in that engine’s third defeat.

“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.”

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Rivera promised all three quarterbacks would play, and Taylor Heineke took over at the start of the third series, with about nine minutes remaining in the second quarter. But he struggled with accuracy and pace with his receivers and finished 4 of 9 for 21 yards, intercepting and rating 12.0 pass.

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 rookie receiver Kyric McGowan for 27 yards, then found Marken Michel for 17 yards, and finished the drive by scrambling in the middle for 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 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 the 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.

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