Jordan Howard was a bright spot in what was otherwise a dreary season for the Chicago Bears.
The rookie running back earned a Pro Bowl nod after rushing for 1,313 yards and six touchdowns, despite performing in an offense that often sputtered because of a lack of consistency, continuity, and turnovers. The 2016 season didn’t provide much, but at least it allowed for Howard to make a case to be a building block for the 2017 team.
Howard’s Pro Bowl experience was a positive one, with him telling Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com, “Anytime you get this honor, being a Pro Bowler, I feel like it’s special, so I hope to get many more in the future. A lot of people don’t get to do this in their whole career, so me being able to do this in my rookie year, it’s very special. It’s a big honor and I’m very grateful for it.”
Howard rushed for 21 yards on five carries in the game. Those 21 yards were a game high, because Pro Bowl.
In any case, considering his high level of production in 2016 after making the climb from a fifth-round pick to third-string running back to 1,000-yard rusher, Howard was a great story and a deserving Pro Bowler. But for Howard to make good on his goal of being a perennial Pro Bowler, the Bears need to commit to making him more of a focal point in their offense in the years to come.
Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, who spoke for the first time since season’s end during practice Thursday at the Senior Bowl, said he was proud of Howard and excited with how he earned a Pro Bowl roster spot. You can check out video here. It says a lot about Howard to get this far considering where he was drafted, and then slotted behind returning starter Jeremy Langford.
“He hasn’t scratched the surface of what he can be,” Loggains said on Thursday.
If that’s the case (and it certainly might be), then why wasn’t Howard afforded more opportunities to prove his future value in 2016?
This isn’t to say Howard didn’t have a productive rookie season. A 1,300-yard season and a Pro Bowl appearance do not come without excellence. But Howard carried the ball only 252 times, which is the fourth fewest among the 12 rushers who gained 1,000+ yards. And on a per-game basis, Howard’s 16.8 attempts per game ranked 12th among those at his position.
For example, perhaps Howard could get more touches on 3rd/4th-and-short situations, where the Bears threw the ball 54.7 percent of the time. There were 17 fewer Howard runs than pass attempts on 3rd/4th-and-short situations for the Bears in 2016, less than ideal, considering they were trotting out their second and third string quarterbacks for most of the season.
Of course, there are times when it’s difficult to justify running the ball because of the score situation. Being down big doesn’t allow for patience with the running game when big chunks of yards are needed to keep a contest competitive. However, the Bears had more pass attempts (199) than rushes (188) when they were either tied or leading. That’s 199 pass attempts from quarterbacks who collectively owned an 81.9 quarterback rating in 2016.
That simply doesn’t seem like the best approach considering Howard’s performance, especially noting he had a 4.4 yards per carry average when the team had a lead, and averaged 5.1 yards on carries when the game was tied.
Maybe you can argue that the Bears were preserving Howard for the future by limiting his rush attempts in a lost year. Perhaps you can make a case that Howard proved enough in limited carries that throwing the ball with Matt Barkley down the stretch allowed the Bears decision makers more of a sample size to grade the relatively unknown in-house quarterback option. Certainly, there came a point last season where winning that week’s game was not going to fundamentally change the course of the organization.
Looking ahead, however, the Bears would do themselves a major favor in 2017 by more freely handing the keys to Howard – no matter who the team starts at quarterback in the season opener.