There’s not a lot to love about the Chicago Bears offense at the moment. There’s just too many questions, too little time, to be wholly confident in this unit. You can go on down the line with unease.
Is Kevin White still salvageable at wide receiver? Can Cameron Meredith be a reliable number one target? Are Charles Leno and Bobby Massie good enough at either book end of the offensive line? How will Mike Glennon, who hasn’t started a game in two years, play once he steps under center in September? What if rookie Mitchell Trubisky takes his job? How will his inexperience as a college starter factor in?
The list feels like it never ends, but where the questions start, they eventually come to a head with a relatively calming solution. An answer you can finally count on. And that comes with a power running game led by the Bears’ massive interior trio of Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, and Kyle Long, paving the way for Chicago’s lifeblood and it’s bell cow, Jordan Howard.
It wasn’t always this way. It wasn’t evident that Howard was the Bears’ offense’s best player until it seemed like he began rattling off 100-yard game after 100-yard game as 2016 winded down. Even then, he impressively managed to do it with limited opportunity, amassing more than 20 carries just four times in 13 starts.
Don’t ask the NFL Top-100 list about his credentials, of course. Mainly because you have what you need to see here.
There he goes!@JHowardx24 breaks loose for 69 yards! #MINvsCHI https://t.co/FPffm5crjB— NFL (@NFL) November 1, 2016
Now, with the roster limitations present, no one has a bigger bullseye on their back with the Bears offense than Howard. No one has higher expectations to maintain a similar level of play as a rookie than Howard. Yes, the quarterbacks in Glennon or Trubisky will be crucial to overall success, but no one knows what to expect from them for the time being. For Howard, who ran for 1,313 yards last year, the ceiling can and should only go higher based off of prior circumstances. And he’ll need to be relied more than ever, at least from the outset.
With that in mind, there’s something crucial that needs to be asked about a player in Howard who came in second in the NFL in rushing last season: How much better can he get and how can the Bears make sure their star tailback doesn’t falter as the clear central focus?
Rounding out his skill set
The one really obvious area Howard can improve that we haven’t been able to see is his game is pass catching. The 22-year-old caught just 29 passes last year, which doesn’t seem that bad at first glance, until you forget how the Bears prefer their running back is more of a threat working out of the backfield. He had a few big drops against the Giants and Titans, both losses, that earned him plenty of scrutiny.
Overall, Howard led the league in drops for running backs with eight, so there’s a lot to clean up.
In that regard it shouldn’t be too much to ask Howard to be more reliable as a receiving target, especially since he’s the featured franchise player. It’s one thing to get in a tizzy over Joshua Bellamy and Deonte Thompson, the Bears’ bottom-of-the-depth-chart receivers who contribute in other ways, when they drop passes. It doesn’t matter as much.
But for Howard, in the modern NFL where running backs such as the traditional Adrian Peterson who aren’t much of a third-down threat that are going the way of the dinosaur, he can’t afford to be a non-existent passing option. NFL attacks are opening up with better, more versatile athletes more and more, all to combat the speed of and increased athleticism that defenses have added in spreading them out. One day, the Bears will want to be one of those explosive, multi-faceted units, and Howard has to prove he can consistently be a part of that movement.
Certainly, the Bears’ new “Darren Sproles” in Tarik Cohen can help in this area as a change of pace back in specific offensive packages, but you don’t want that to mean Howard becomes a non-existent threat on third down. You want your best offensive weapon to be feared by defensive coordinators, not easily schemed against with an army of defenders in the box not respecting your quarterback and taking away the running game altogether.
The very nature of the Bears’ offensive structure demands Howard become a more complete back in his sophomore NFL season or risk taking a step back as everyone understands this is the man they need to stop to slow Chicago down.
If Howard brings more consistent hands to the table as well as sharper route running then there’s no reason to believe he can’t be north of 40 receptions in 2017. And he’ll have to be, if there’s any reasonable progression otherwise.
A changing workload
Many widely panned the Bears for the belief that Howard was underused his rookie season. He had just 281 touches overall compared to his rookie counterpart in the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, who had 354 - 73 more attempts.
The optimist’s take is that he wasn’t wasted totally in a 3-13 year. The pessimist sees the Bears attempting for more offensive diversity under the green offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains while forgetting their best weapon, because as mentioned, Howard only carried the ball more than 20 times on four occasions.
Gauging how that use will change is difficult because now everyone, and I mean everyone, knows that the way the Bears offense will succeed is on the back of Howard bulldozing his way through defenders with his powerful legs. The smartest defensive minds have a year of film on him and how to limit his bursts into the second level. And for the moment, they have no reason to fear the Bears’ very average passing game.
But it’s not like Chicago has a choice. This isn’t a team you’ll see allowing any of their quarterbacks to pass the ball 40-plus times, let alone push 30 throwing attempts often. The Bears have a ball control offense centered around Howard’s abilities.
Some have recently surmised that Howard would be the Bears’ modern Walter Payton, in that he becomes the tailback mired by extreme use on a bad team. The historical comparison is also there in that the Hall of Famer in Payton touched the ball just 229 times in his 1975 rookie season. He subsequently jumped up to 326 touches in 1976. Though Payton wasn’t as successful in his first campaign as Howard was, accumulating only 892 total yards.
It was a different game back then, but after that, it was rare the year where Payton wasn’t pushing close to 350 attempts will the ball through the rest of his career. That’s with the dimension of catching passes, as he averaged 37 receptions a season in 13 years.
Of course, the Bears wouldn’t begin to consistently win until the early 1980’s under Mike Ditka, all while the best years of Payton were behind them.
To say all of that will happen with Howard in 2017 and beyond is a little misguided though.
For one, advances in sports medicine and how players rest and are treated have new philosophies in place by coaches. Most understand that running backs already have a short shelf life. Some don’t even last until they’re 30-years-old due to the express amount of punishment they take and how often they’re exposed to said punishment. So there’s the tendency to ease back the reins on players such as Howard in their situation to preserve longevity.
The Bears know they can and should use Howard more, especially in more creative ways, but they also know not to break the back of the man with the key to their offensive balance. It’ll be about incorporating everyone else such as Meredith or White, while giving whomever is under center a chance to thrive, so as to not expose Howard to being short-changed so early in his career.
There’s no thought of a one-year wonder in this area, as long as the Bears are properly prepared to put Howard in a position to succeed.
On the other side of this matter, these Bears won’t nearly be as bad as any of those early-Payton era squads. Chicago averaged approximately five wins a season in the first nine years of Payton’s career on talent-deficient teams. The modern era Bears already have more in place on defense, at least in the front seven, and have their potential franchise quarterback to pair with Howard long-term in Trubisky.
Now, until Trubisky develops, or until Glennon shows there’s a threat with his own arm, it will likely look like shades of Payton working against eight to nine-man boxes with Howard in the meantime. But that shouldn’t scare the Bears away from using their best offensive player. He should surpass 300-plus touches based on the simple fact of 16 starts alone this season.
The Bears have to make sure they find the middle ground in that easily assumed increased output for Howard. The best things in life come in moderation.
Maintaining importance long-term
A few years ago, it seemed like the running back position had gone extinct. It was rare to find true superstars relied on in the same fashion the way they were still used even in the early 2000’s. One could find themselves legitimately struggling at the thought of naming more than a handful of quality tailbacks.
Now, it looks like football is going in the opposite direction, with teams introducing running backs into their offense more and more, especially as receiving threats. What was once a model gone extinct now has names such as Howard, Elliott, David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, Devonta Freeman, DeMarco Murray, Melvin Gordon, LeGarrette Blount, and Todd Gurley.
Factor in a new influx of talent such as Christian McCaffrey with the Panthers and Leonard Fournette with the Jaguars, both of whom went in the top 8 of this year’s draft, and you see organizations realizing the neglected weapon that they’ve been missing as defenses have improved talent-wise. An ebb and flow.
The best teams and offenses in the league not only have a featured back, but guys behind them they can rely on in multiple packages. Howard of course, will be the Bears’ primary star in the backfield for some time while players such as Cohen are the lightning to his thunder.
Given the newest trend returning to tailbacks in the NFL, the Bears are fortunate enough to have Howard in place on their roster. And seeing recent success in that fashion, they can only afford marked steps in improvement and productivity from their second-year runner.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.