Desperation can be an intrinsic motivating factor for NFL players. Desperation is when the stars come to shine. When they know they're needed.
For the Bears' Jordan Howard, the without-a-doubt current face of the franchise, he knew he had to make a statement for his team. The heavily favored and undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers were coming into town with the Bears reeling at 0-2, and questions abound. From underperforming players on both sides of the ball, to a mounting injury list, everyone had begun to write the Bears off. A third consecutive 0-3 start would be a death knell for the 2017 season.
A sprained AC joint already in his shoulder coming into Sunday's pivotal home stand - an incredibly debilitating injury - you could've easily forgiven Howard for shying away from the moment. For stepping out of the spotlight to rest. For conserving himself until he was 100 percent ready to man his backfield again. Football's a brutal game and why destroy your body for a floundering team?
On Sunday afternoon, Howard instead showed everyone in attendance at Soldier Field and those watching at home exactly what he's all about: these Bears are his team and he's going to put them on his back when they need him to. The way a star shines.
Against the NFL's fifth-ranked defense in Pittsburgh coming in, Howard imposed his will on a Steelers team that knew he would be coming straight ahead, downhill, every single play. They had no answer for his determination, try as they would. 23 carries, 138 yards, two touchdowns - including a stunning game-winner in overtime - and five receptions for 26 yards, is an understatement of how special he was.
To further emphasize: Howard played 41 of the Bears' 60 snaps with a sprained AC joint as the focal point of Chicago's offense against one of the most athletic defenses in the NFL. Read that again. Remember it.
Howard's effort while continually fighting through his shoulder injury at various points in a 23-17 bonkers Bears' victory was the kind of game people will discuss for decades on. The kind of bookmark game you use when discussing one of the game's greats. A Herculean game by a human being extending beyond the regular thresholds of pain no one should dare attempt to replicate.
This was Howard's "Flu Game" in the mold of Walter Payton. This was the game many will first reference in deep appreciation of the 22-year-old man among boys.
Imagine the classic John Facenda and his smooth voice over an NFL Films montage of what Howard did against the Steelers. It would fit in seamlessly without a blink of an eye. Head coach John Fox echoed the same sentiment as everyone learned a valuable lesson about the Bears' sophomore runner Sunday afternoon.
“He’s a tough son of a gun. The more you have of those, the better off you are and the better chances you have to win," said Fox.
If you have one Howard-type, let's be honest: you might actually only need one "tough one son of a gun" to be successful.
What was the best part about Howard's transcendent game was that he truly never gave in. When you first saw him screaming in no doubt tremendous pain as he lay on the Soldier Field grass in the midst of the Bears' second possession of the second half, most thought he was done and down for the count. Tarik Cohen time for the remainder of regulation, right?
Nope. Here comes Howard back from the dead and right back out for the Bears five plays later after a quick breather, not to be outdone on a crucial third-and-short, no less.
Of course, what does Howard do? Break two tackles after being immediately met in the backfield by Steelers defenders and converts the first down. Come and get him, if you choose.
On the Bears' next possession, their first of the fourth quarter, Howard again injured his shoulder and stepped out. Surely, he'd leave the game for good now? A valiant effort to help the Bears hold a tenuous 17-14 lead at the time would still be appreciated. Everything would be forgiven.
Nope. There's Howard lined up in the Bears' backfield on the very next possession following a Steelers field goal, seemingly forgetting he needed his shoulder. Prepared to finish the job for again, his team.
The Bears were already facing so much adversity coming into Sunday's game on so many fronts. After a listless performance against the Buccaneers the week before, and a heartbreaking defeat to the Atlanta Falcons to open the year, they couldn't have afforded wasting another overall solid team performance. This wounded animal only had so much left in the tank. Desperation will take you only so far.
Howard on Sunday was the emblem of that wounded animal. Howard was that Bears team with potential and talent that was a little hampered for the time being. This was when fight or flight kicked in.
An ailing Howard late in one of the wackier Bears games in recent memory, chose fight, never looking back.
The Bears saw it too. When the game's on the line, go to your bell cow who wants the responsibility. Put the onus on him to finish the game in overtime and drive your team. After a ridiculously explosive 36-yard Cohen run that may or may not have been out of bounds to open the extra period, that's exactly what the Bears did.
The first play after Cohen's explosion: a 19-yard Howard run with him still finishing with contact on Pittsburgh defenders as he runs out of bounds.
Second carry: a MAC truck of Howard bursting downhill to the pylon for 19 yards for the walk-off winner. A cascade of emotions and profanities seeping out of Howard as he took his helmet off to revel in the moment. All memories of a shoulder in pieces fading away. Game. Set. Match.
Howard hadn't let his Bears teammates down before to this point in his career. He wasn't about to start setting a lackluster example now because he was injured, even though no one would've thought twice about it.
"I didn't feel like I could finish ... And I just saw my team, they kept fighting, so I had to keep playing," said Howard.
Finish Howard did. Because when you back a wounded animal into a corner: that's when they're at their most dangerous.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is an editor for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.