Way back when Matt Nagy was named the Bears’ 16th head coach in franchise history Jan. 8, one of his first proclamations was that he considered Jordan Howard a three-down running back and that the offense would not shy away from using him in passing situations.
No one in franchise history has rushed for more yards in his first two seasons than Howard, who went to the Pro Bowl after his 2016 rookie year, when he accumulated 1,313 yards on the ground and averaged an NFC-best 5.2 yards a carry. But Bears observers who had seen Howard catch the ball as if it were filled with radioactive waste in 2017 were skeptical about his value as a receiver. Nagy said if Howard’s receiving skills were found to be a weakness, work would be done to change that.
Clearly Nagy was serious, based on Howard’s five catches Sunday night (on five targets), at least two of which had a high difficulty factor and probably wouldn’t have resulted in completions last year, when Howard had a handful of egregious drops and caught only 23 passes.
“I feel like I did pretty well,” Howard said. “Just focusing on the ball.”
Howard’s receptions against the Packers produced only 25 yards, but the point is that he was on the field and involved as a receiver in passing situations in addition to his game-best 82 rushing yards on 15 carries (5.5-yard average).
Howard was not one of those who were skeptical of Nagy’s early intentions to use him as an every-down back and as a receiver.
“I believed him,” Howard said. “I didn’t have a reason not to believe him. I thought I showed up pretty well [Sunday night]. Coach Nagy said he was going to use me like he told everybody, and he did.”
Because he took Nagy at his word, the 6-foot, 224-pound Howard had a reason to work overtime on his receiving skills in the offseason and all through training camp and the preseason. Working with first-year running backs coach Charles London, who was a Bears offensive assistant from 2007 to 2009, Howard took every opportunity to improve his pass catching whenever he wasn’t running plays with the offense.
“Coach London just worked with me every day when he got here,” Howard said. “We did tennis balls, did the Jugs machine all through training camp, whenever I had down time. Different guys [were] throwing to me, just always catching passes when I wasn’t working. It was just repetition, making sure I had the proper hand placement.”
If Howard remains a pass-catching threat, that will make the Bears’ offense more difficult to defend because personnel won’t dictate play calling. Using the powerful Howard only as a runner and his complement, the quick-twitch Tarik Cohen, only as a receiver makes the offense predictable, something Nagy abhors.
However, it’s Howard’s combination of tackle-breaking strength and vision as a runner that makes him special. That’s why, when the Bears were facing a third-and-1 early in the fourth quarter and trying to hold off a Packers rally, Nagy was second-guessed for calling a pass to tight end Dion Sims that went for no gain and resulted in a punt instead of handing off the ball to Howard.
Why not hand the ball off to your workhorse running back in that situation? Howard had runs of 7, 16 and 11 yards on the next possession, which set up a short field goal.
“Everybody wants the ball at the end of the game,” Howard said. “(But) whatever coach called, I was with it.”
That’s Howard, an even-keeled, diplomatic man of few words. But he had sound advice for his teammates as they try to bounce back from the Sunday night collapse in Green Bay and get their minds right for Monday night’s home opener against the Seahawks.
“You have to treat it like any other regular-season game,” he said. “We’ve got a lot more games left, so you just have to move on – can’t dwell on the [last] game.”