BOURBONNAIS — Asked a few days ago where Jordan Howard fit in his offense, coach Matt Nagy offered a full-throated endorsement of his third-year running back.
“There’s this notion that he is just a first- and second-down back, and I don’t believe that,” he said. “Jordan can play all three downs. We’re gonna do that. . . .
“For us, it’s important for Jordan to know and for everybody on our offense to know that he’s a big part of this. This kid’s had a very successful career so far. We’re crazy as coaches and as offensive coaches if we don’t understand it and if we don’t use that to our advantage.”
Howard had six drops on 29 catchable throws last year, according to Pro Football Focus. Some thought his pass-catching struggles might disqualify him from Nagy’s offense, in which featured back Kareem Hunt caught a whopping 53 passes for the Chiefs last year.
So was Nagy’s statement an exercise in wishful thinking? Was he trying to speak it into existence like LaVar Ball? Maybe mere ego-stroking? Remember, the Bears had to reassure Howard this offseason that they weren’t going to trade him.
On Monday, Nagy was asked precisely what prompted such a reinforcement of Howard’s role.
“It has nothing to do with his skills — what he does well or doesn’t do well,” Nagy said. “I don’t believe in putting guys in a box. And I think for these guys, putting them in different spots, if you don’t ever put them in these spots, you’ll never know what they can and can’t do. So let’s go ahead and test ’em out and see what they do.
“I know this much: That kid is working on his hands every single day. He’s getting [passes thrown from a machine]. They’re having competitions with it. He’s having fun. And it’s reflecting in practice.”
Howard has changed where he puts his hands after receiving guidance from running backs coach Charles London, who mentored Lamar Miller to 36 catches for 327 yards last year with the Texans.
“I used to have my hands all over the place,’’ said Howard, who caught 23 passes for 125 yards last season.
Howard has caught passes from the pitching machine every day during training-camp practice at Olivet Nazarene University. He also has coaches throw passes to him with his back turned, forcing him to pivot, find the ball midair and catch it.
“It’s very important,” he said. “Just getting the repetitions, muscle memory.”
He’s proud of the work he has put in. Howard has dropped balls in training camp but also has made a few acrobatic catches.
“Definitely, it’s important to me,” Howard said. “Just building my confidence more and more with catching the ball and working my body.”
Playing on third down is about more than catching passes. Benny Cunningham served in that role last season because he was a better pass-blocker than Howard or Tarik Cohen. While the Bears figure to use scat protection — sending running backs out for quick passes before the rusher reaches the quarterback — at times, Howard needs to block well to play on third down.
With a bet on the line between London and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio on Monday, he did.
During a drill, Howard stood up a pass rusher, inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski — and the defense had to do 10 push-ups. The offense cheered.
“I’m just a little upset that Vic . . . I didn’t see him doing his 10 push-ups,” Nagy said.
Bears camp live show: Monday
Want your Bears training camp update without delay? Each day of summer practice, Sun-Times Bears’ beat writers Patrick Finley, Adam Jahns and Mark Potash will share exclusive insights on the workout and interviews in a livestream conversation 1 p.m. daily through August 12. Catch their live analysis and ask questions on Twitter: @suntimes_sports or follow Sun-Times Sports on Periscope to be notified of each live report.