Washington wanted Russell Wilson. Sam Howell wanted to play like him.

In early 2022, the Washington Commanders were once again looking for a quarterback, and a top name on the market was Russell Wilson. The relationship between the Seattle Seahawks and their franchise quarterback had deteriorated — Wilson had asked ownership to fire Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, according to The Athletic — and Washington wanted to push to acquire the nine-time Pro Bowler.

Washington was willing to offer a lucrative package that included three first-round picks, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations. But the person got the impression Seattle didn’t want to trade Wilson within the NFC.

A member of the Seahawks organization, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said trade talks with Washington never progressed to specifics. Wilson had a no-trade clause, and according to several people, including Jake Heaps, Wilson’s private quarterbacks’ coach, the quarterback wouldn’t waive it to send him to Washington or Philadelphia; the Eagles were also interested in the veteran quarterback.

“The only place he gave permission for us to negotiate with in earnest was Denver,” the Seahawks executive said.

In March 2022, Seattle traded Wilson and a fourth-round draft choice to Denver for a major haul of five picks — two first-rounders, two seconds and a fifth — as well as three players. Denver gave Wilson a huge contract extension to tie him to the team for a total of seven years and $296 million. The first season was a disaster: Wilson looked older and slower, new ownership fired its rookie coach, and the team finished 5-12. This offseason, Denver hired veteran Coach Sean Payton to help fix Wilson, and on Sunday at Mile High, Washington (1-0) will try to prevent the duo (0-1) from getting its first win together.

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Eighteen months after Washington failed to trade for him, Wilson’s shadow still looms large over the Commanders. The team remains in quarterback purgatory, and it used one of the picks it would’ve given up for Wilson to instead draft of a player who wants to emulate him. Growing up, Sam Howell’s favorite quarterback was Drew Brees, but he loved watching Wilson because they were so similar — shorter, mobile playmakers with big arms who excelled at throwing the deep ball.

“We both can get out of the pocket and extend plays and make things happen,” Howell said. “[Wilson’s] been such a good player throughout his career. I know he struggled last year, but I expect him to get right back on track this year.”

Now, Howell hopes to reach the same heights as Wilson, who was also a good baseball player, chose football, tore up the ACC at a college in North Carolina, fell in the NFL draft and stepped in as a raw, promising starter to complement a strong defense.

Washington, after missing on Wilson, traded Indianapolis two mid-round picks and swapped 2022 second-rounders to try to fix Carson Wentz. The Commanders kept the first-rounders Wilson would’ve cost, which turned out to be key. The team used two of those picks (and others added by trading down) to draft key contributors who might not otherwise be here: receiver Jahan Dotson, running back Brian Robinson Jr., tight end Cole Turner, cornerback Emmanuel Forbes and Howell.

One senior NFC personnel executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss other teams, said Washington ended up in a better situation than Denver did. Howell’s contract makes it easier to build around him than Wilson. And though Howell is 22 and unproven, he also has more upside than Wilson, who is 34 and has an athletic skill set with which it’s hard to age gracefully.

“It’s pretty easy to say Russell Wilson is no longer an arrow-up player,” the executive said. “It’s debatable to say: Is he even an arrow-across?”

In 2012, when Seattle drafted Wilson in the third round, Howell was in middle school. After the 2013 season, Wilson and Seattle’s famous “Legion of Boom” defense beat Denver in the Super Bowl, and Wilson’s star grew. Quickly, Howell realized the Seahawks’ 5-foot-11, 215-pound quarterback was doing a lot of the things he wanted to do.

“All the times where he extends plays and does things off schedule — it was really fun to watch,” Howell said.

During the 2020 season, when Howell led North Carolina to a top-20 finish, he started to reach the upper echelons of ACC quarterback play that Wilson had inhabited before transferring from North Carolina State to Wisconsin. The next year, a disappointment for UNC, Howell passed Wilson for career touchdown passes in the conference.

Before the draft, most analysts compared Howell to Baker Mayfield and a lesser or developmental Wilson. (Pro Football Focus called Howell a “slower Russell Wilson.”) After Washington drafted Howell 144th, the things Coach Ron Rivera and General Manager Martin Mayhew said they liked about him echoed Wilson’s skill set.

This summer, ESPN analyst Mina Kimes said Howell’s running ability and build, at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, “almost reminds of a young Russell Wilson.”

And Commanders defenders who have played against Wilson said they can see the resemblance.

“They both run and move in the pocket very well,” said defensive end Casey Toohill, who had two quarterback hits on Wilson in a 2021 win over Seattle.

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Middle linebacker Cody Barton, whom Seattle drafted in 2019, spent three years with Wilson. He said he sees physical similarities between the two quarterbacks, and when he signed with Washington this offseason, he noticed “the way [Howell] moves as a player” was familiar. Specifically, Howell’s mannerisms on play-action fakes from shotgun reminded him of Wilson.

But for Barton, the strongest parallels weren’t on the field. In Seattle, the linebacker sat next to Wilson in the meeting room, and in Washington, he sits two seats away from Howell. Both quarterbacks, he said, always seem to be studying from big binders.

“[It’s] the dedication to their craft and their work, and the focus and the competitiveness,” he said. “Sam — I wouldn’t say he’s the most talkative guy if he doesn’t really know you. But once you talk to him, you can see he’s very competitive and very focused. That’s a similarity I can see in those two.”

These days, Russell Wilson wants to look a little less like Russell Wilson. Last year, not only did he have a career-worst performance throwing the ball, but he also looked slower and less explosive as a runner. In August, Payton told a reporter Wilson had lost 15 pounds in the offseason, and Wilson said he’d adopted intermittent fasting to get leaner and quicker.

“You see it [on tape],” Rivera said of Wilson’s weight loss. “He’s moving well. He’s still a good decision-maker. He gets the ball out quick. He’s got an NFL arm still. I think he’s still learning and growing in Coach Payton’s offense.”

Sam Howell is out to prove he’s more than just a short-term solution

Rivera coached against Payton’s New Orleans Saints twice each season when he was the Carolina Panthers’ head coach. He believes Payton will help Wilson regain form.

“Sean’s … got a very good offense,” Rivera added. “It’s very diverse. He utilizes his playmakers very well, and the idea is trying to get the ball to them as quickly as possible. I think Russell has the type of arm that can suit it and fit very well. So I think, as they work together and they grow, they’re going to become more and more efficient, and they’re going to cause a lot more problems for people.”

This is where the paths of Wilson and Howell diverge. Denver needs Wilson to figure things out because his massive contract runs until 2028. Washington can try to develop Howell and decide at the end of the year whether to double down or move on.

For the NFC personnel executive, who said he’d rather be Washington than Denver, the flexibility is key. Denver moving on from Wilson would require a huge reset. But it’s clear what Washington wants: for the comparisons to continue, for Howell to play well enough to earn a monster contract, for Howell to settle the quarterback carousel that’s spun here for years.

The way Howell can make everyone’s dreams come true is simple: Grow into a player like Wilson was not all that long ago.

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