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Paving lanes and toting pigskin; making sense of the trade and the Bears’ new plan at runningback

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Jordan Howard was a good player and an even greater person with the Chicago Bears. Matt Nagy is looking for something better in his vision.

Wild Card Round - Philadelphia Eagles v Chicago Bears
We will miss Jordan Howard the person, but Matt Nagy may not miss Jordan Howard the player.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Despite the ominous and harsh tone in both the boilerplate and title, I for one will miss watching Jordan Howard line up in the backfield for the Chicago Bears. At this present point in time I do not agree with the Bears’ decision to part ways with #24 without having a sure-fire alpha in their backfield already. What’s more, is Jordan goes beyond being a good player. He’s a great teammate; a guy you want to fill all 53 spots on your active roster with.

With the warm parting comes the cold reality

Whether any of us agree or disagree with Matt Nagy’s assessment at the RB position does not matter whatsoever to him or anyone else at Halas Hall. Rather, Nagy is abiding by his own motto, “be you.” Ever since he was hired last year, questions were being asked about whether Nagy could mesh Howard’s skillsets into his own coaching preferences.

Where I have championed Nagy as a creative if not flexible coach, there appears to be a limit as to how much he’s willing to stretch his playbook to fit the talent available to him.

In the end, it became painfully obvious that this was not possible. Again, I’m not happy with this decision as of now. However, one must respect Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace for the matter in being entirely honest about the situation.

The marriage that was divorced before the honeymoon

Let’s not act like Jordan Howard didn’t accomplish anything in Chicago.

The former Pro Bowler became the youngest and fastest Chicago Bear to reach the 2,000 and 3,000 yards rushing mark in their respective career. This includes hall of fame players like Walter Payton and Gale Sayers, and great players like Matt Forte. He, truly, was the lone bright spot in an otherwise bleak offense previously ran within John Fox’s “run-run-pass the bubblewrap” philosophy.

Unfortunately, as fate would have it, the transition to Matt Nagy’s ultra-aggressive and modern approach proved to be too great a challenge for both sides to handle.

For the 2018 season, “JoHo” totaled 935 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns, boasting a problematic 3.7 yards per carriage average. In his final four games of the regular season Howard posted 323 yards and 4 touchdowns. That’s over 1/3rd of his yearly yardage production in one quarter of a season.

The biggest difference came in the balancing act on offense. Over the first 12 games of the regular season, Howard carried the ball an average of approximately 15 times per game. In the final 4 games of the regular season, he averaged exactly 18 carries per game. He was never made a primary target in the receiving game, and was targeted just 27 times for the 2018 season.

That is significant in the sense the final 4 games of the season turned into a run-heavy smash mouth concept for the offense. Nagy wanted to protect Mitchell Trubisky after coming off a shoulder injury earlier in the season. Additionally, he formulated a much more conservative gameplan once the Bears locked up their spot in the playoffs.

This is just not what Matt Nagy aims to accomplish on offense long-term.

Instead, he’s continuing with his plans to aggressively attack defenses by spreading the ball around on quick-hitting plays. Once his young quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky is firmly settled into this offense, we won’t be seeing too much smash mouth football being utilized. I also expect a heavy dosage of designed QB keeps, read-options, and possibly QB draws/powers in what has evolved into a true spread concept on offense.

This will result in fewer opportunities for the rest of the backfield. His backs will all be expected to pop violently in short intervals. What’s more, is all backs in his field will be expected to contribute in all aspects of the game on offense. There will be no more single-rolled specialists in the stable.

The overhaul in the backfield has already commenced

From the very start of the offseason, Ryan Pace has brought in players who will bring new elements to the position.

Mike Davis, the former 3rd down specialist and reservist for the Seattle Seahawks, has been touted by Matt Nagy as someone who naturally makes defenders miss when running between the tackles. The 5’9 and 217 lb back has been praised as a physical player who’s gifted with a natural set of hands in the receiving game as well. He’s coming off a career year where he totaled over 500 yards rushing and a respectable 4.6 yards per carriage.

People have compared Davis to former Bear Thomas Jones. Both were brought in shortly after having career years with their former team, and both have a sense of balance when it comes to the overall position. That’s about as far as I’m willing to go with the comparisons.

For me, I don’t see Davis having the same type of impact Thomas Jones had after arriving from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Thomas Jones was the best back out of a disappointing Bucs offense in 2003, where he nearly rushed for as many yards in a reserve role with 3 starts as their primary starter Michael Pittman did in 13 starts (627 yards to 751). Jon Gruden (how ironic?) simply didn’t choose the right back to keep that offseason.

On the other hand, Mike Davis could never unseat established starters in Chris Carson and (eventually) Rashaad Penny. His production as a 3rd down specialist is impressive, yet not awe inspiring. Unlike Jones, Davis wasn’t considered the best back in their backfield, at any point. He’s not someone who’s proven themselves capable of maintaining a sizeable role for long periods of time. His productivity dipped when he was slotted as the starter in 9 career starts.

Meanwhile, we have Tarik Cohen still in Chicago’s backfield. His size will always give people pause when guessing his future workloads. At the same time, he’s played much larger than his listed size of 5’6” and 181 lbs. Considering how valuable he is as a chess piece at receiver, tailback, returner, and even wildcat; Matt Nagy may continue to hold off on naming him the next featured back.

Cordarrelle Patterson is an interesting name in this situation. He’s currently listed as a receiver — as he should be — but he’s looked remarkably effective as a runner. Matt Nagy loves running the jet sweep, Taylor Gabriel earned quite a few carries in 2018 alone. I’d expect Patterson to assume most of those plays moving forward; yet again, I don’t see him getting a leading role provided his versatility.

We’ll definitely see Tarik Cohen and newcomers Mike Davis along with Cordarrelle Patterson get their opportunities to contribute in the ground game. We’ll also see a lead back identified at some point and consume the lion’s share of the load. In my opinion, Matt Nagy isn’t looking for a committee in his backfield. He’s looking for his all-purpose player.

Balance is key both on the ground and in the air

For comparison’s sake, I’m using Kareem Hunt’s stats from 2017 as I see Hunt being the exact type of player Matt Nagy wants at RB — strictly from a talent and skillset perspective — and glossing over Jordan Howard’s production from 2018. Needless to say, these are two completely different types of players. The former is more explosive, where the later is tougher and plays bluntly and heavy-hitting like a sledgehammer.

First, here are the averages and totals for Kareem Hunt in 2017.

Kareem Hunt 2017

Games Total Carries Carries Per Game Total Yardage Yards Per Carry TDs
Games Total Carries Carries Per Game Total Yardage Yards Per Carry TDs
16 272 17 1,327 4.9 8
Games Total Receptions Targets Per Game Total Yardage Yards Per Reception TDs
16 53 4 455 8.6 3

Now let’s look at Jordan Howard both previous to and after 2018.

Jordan Howard Pre-2018

Games Total Carries Carries Per Game Total Yardage Yards Per Carry TDs
Games Total Carries Carries Per Game Total Yardage Yards Per Carry TDs
31 528 17 2,435 4.65 15
Games Total Receptions Targets Per Game Total Yardage Yards Per Reception TDs
31 52 2.64 423 7.85 1

Jordan Howard 2018

Games Total Carries Carries Per Game Total Yardage Yards Per Carry TDs
Games Total Carries Carries Per Game Total Yardage Yards Per Carry TDs
16 250 15.62 935 3.7 9
Games Total Receptions Targets Per Game Total Yardage Yards Per Reception TDs
16 20 1.68 145 7.3 0

The numbers never lie

Both of these players averaged around the same attempts per game when toting the rock. That is about it when it comes to similarities between the two. As one can see from these tables, these two players are completely different from one another.

Matt Nagy’s biggest advantage with Kareem Hunt was the player being a capable receiver out of the backfield. This allowed for Nagy to be more balanced with his playcalling in Kansas City without having to depend on a player rotation for certain packages or plays to work. Hunt’s ability to generate bigger plays on fewer touches also fit well with Nagy’s concepts for the running game. Nagy isn’t one who seems comfortable in simply handing the ball off 20-30 times per game for any one player. The more unpredictable, the better.

These are all problems when trying to find a fit with Jordan Howard.

First, the Bears switched from mostly an outside zone team in Howard’s first two years, to an inside zone team with the ground game and Harry Hiestand’s blocking concepts taking effect. Second, Howard becomes more productive the heavier his load is on offense; he’s like the grinding wheel where he slowly wears his opponents out instead of ripping off large chunks quickly. Likewise, when an effort isn’t made to consistently feed the ball, he doesn’t produce a large enough impact on the game.

The most critical element in this entire evaluation is being a true 3-down player. As much as I do not like admitting to this, Howard is not such a player. Neither are Tarik Cohen and Mike Davis for the matter. That pair — Cohen and Davis — are good role players, yet neither have proven themselves to be a capable alpha/lead back for extended periods of time.

Packages and committees make your offense more predictable over time. This is a problem Nagy has been looking to avoid. Again, as I’ve said earlier in this article, a backfield by committee isn’t the answer.

Look to the future

If Howard’s trade wasn’t made imminent through Nagy’s comments through the year, or Pace’s admittance of Howard being on the trade block days before the deal was announced, the Bears have been looking at virtually every back who’s declared for the 2019 NFL draft.

In fact, we have videos much like this one that clearly shows Matt Nagy personally working runningback prospects himself.

What strikes me the most about Weber is how he’s precisely the kind of back Nagy and his former boss Andy Reid preferred to roll with while at Kansas City and Philadelphia together. Weber has been a productive rusher, decent pass-blocker, and a dependable receiver out of Ohio State’s backfield. There are several other players in this year’s class who fit this profile.

Also, the Bears would 1) have complete control over that player’s contract for the next 4 years and 2) have a chance to pair a player who’s a natural fit in Nagy’s schemes, instead of trying to force something to work out. In all, the Bears have met with no fewer than ten different backs during the pre-draft process.

This leads me to believe Chicago is planning to draft their next featured back early. Whomever the Bears select, whether it’s the 3rd, 4th, or even 5th round; expect that player to eventually assume the title as Matt Nagy’s guy at runningback. Naturally, there will likely be a competition at runningback during training camp, too.

The 3rd round in particular intrigues me, given the quality of backs found in recent years. Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, James Connor, Kenyan Drake, and David Johnson are all names who were called by their respective teams in the 3rd round. And guess what? The Bears’ first pick...is in the 3rd round. In a year that’s deep in talent for the runningback position, no less. Oh, how convenient.

In summary

As it stands, I am not a fan of the Jordan Howard trade. In life, we all will face decisions and moments we completely disagree with if not dislike outright. JoHo will always be a favorite player of mine, regardless of where his career takes him next.

I’m also in understanding as to why these moves have been made.

The door is open for a new player to take over as the latest back in a long-standing tradition of excellence at runningback. I personally believe we won’t know this player until the 2019 draft is in full swing. Then again, Tarik Cohen could be granted first dibs at the full-time lead back job, as he’s the most electrifying player on the Bears’ roster. And, who knows, maybe Mike Davis surprises everyone and becomes the next Thomas Jones at runningback.

All we can do, for now, is sit back and trust the process. Believe me, this is not a decision Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy can afford to screw up. They’ve been doing their homework and making preparations for quite some time.

At least, that’s what we all should hope for.