Bears won’t back down from sky-high expectations of RB Jordan Howard
BOURBONNAIS — Ask Bears running backs coach Curtis Modkins whom Jordan Howard reminds him of, and he constructs a Frankenstein’s monster, taking the best pieces of three stars he has coached: Marshawn Lynch, Larry Johnson and Fred Jackson.
They have seven Pro Bowl appearances among them. Lynch led the NFL in rushing touchdowns twice with the Seattle Seahawks; Johnson finished in the top three in rushing yards for two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs; and Jackson led the league in all-purpose yards in 2009 with the Buffalo Bills.
“Marshawn was a big, strong guy,” Modkins said. “Larry had really good vision and could see. And Fred just had a really high football IQ.
“Jordan has a little bit of all that.”
Eight months after Howard finished second in the NFL with 1,313 rushing yards as a rookie, the Bears are being bold in their expectations, comparing him publicly to some of the game’s greats.
“Those are good players,” Modkins said, “and he’s a really good player.”
They believe in Howard because of what he’s doing in training camp — and what he didn’t do in the months before it.
“I think, for young people, young, rich and famous is not a great combo in most cases,” coach John Fox said. “So whether it’s at [the NFL] level or whatever, Hollywood or wherever, it can be interesting. And I’ve been impressed with how he’s handled it.”
Rather than spend the offseason ordering bottle service, working on his personal brand or letting his newfound celebrity inflate his sense of self, Jordan instead focused on improving his acceleration when he makes cuts on the field. He trimmed his body fat from 15 percent to 13 after the Bears suggested he use a meal delivery service for dinner. His new favorite meal: stuffed peppers, which he’d never tried until this offseason.
He got laser eye surgery, hoping it would help his field vision and his ability to catch passes. And he reported to training camp the same person — albeit in better shape — that he was this time last year, when he’d start each practice just hoping to get a few reps.
The Bears weren’t surprised. They saw in real time how he reacted to becoming a star last season, when he ran for 100 or more yards in seven of his 13 starts.
“His humility and his ability to stay humble was pretty impressive, really beyond his years,” Fox said. “So I think that’s kind of typical of guys that do have that success. They have prosperity and [are] able to deal with that on the same level as they do adversity. So I’ve been impressed with him that way.”
Howard laughed when asked about the trappings of fame. The few times he has gone out in Chicago, he said, the fans who cornered him simply wanted to tell him how he helped their fantasy teams.
“I really wouldn’t call myself famous,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t call myself rich. You stay the same because it can all be taken away at any time. Football’s a one-play game. Your career can end in one play.”
Motivation isn’t hard for Howard, who remembers how nine running backs were drafted before the Bears selected him in the fifth round last year. He rattles off the criticism of his character before the draft — whispered, he said, by people who didn’t know him. After he had knee surgery his junior year at Indiana, they said he was an injury risk. And worse.
“I guess people told them I was out of shape, I was lazy and things like that,” he said. “People bad-mouthing me.”
Before his rookie season, he took a cellphone picture of his Madden NFL 17 video game rating — a lowly 66 — to remind him of what the world thought of his game.
“You have to be self-aware,” he said, “because there’s always things you can improve on.”
For Howard, that started with increased acceleration. His leaner body felt better the first day of camp. The 15 minutes of individual drills — typically the most taxing part of his day — didn’t feel so onerous any more.
He’s working on pass protection, too, hoping to be the increasingly rare three-down NFL back.
“I know how to read defenses better and see when they’re coming and not coming,” he said. “How to block better and get in better position so I can be in better shape to protect the quarterback. I feel a lot more comfortable.”
Fame won’t go away anytime soon. Howard ranked No. 4 on the NFL Players Association’s “Rising 50” list, which seeks to predict whose jersey sales will skyrocket. With wide receiver Alshon Jeffery gone and the Bears’ quarterback situation likely to change after one year, Howard is the team’s most marketable player.
He hasn’t stopped to think about that, and he doesn’t plan to.
“Jordan did some good things last year,” Modkins said. “But ultimately our team was 3-13, and he wants us to be better. He wants us to win. So he’s approached his job on a day-to-day basis as professional, as you could expect.”
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