When running back Jordan Howard reflects on last season — he set a Bears rookie record for rushing yards, was the NFL’s second-leading rusher and made the Pro Bowl — he does so with some surprise, if not slight amazement.
“I just really didn’t know if I was going to get the opportunity to have that kind of success,” Howard said. “But I already knew I was able to have that type of success. I knew what type of player I was.”
Now there arguably isn’t a player who is more vital to the Bears’ success in 2017 than Howard.
As new starting quarterback Mike Glennon wards off the beginning of the Mitch Trubisky era, guard Kyle Long returns from a grisly ankle injury and overlooked skill players vie for attention, Howard needs to be a reliable workhorse for the offense.
As the defense finds its footing after a litany of injuries and at least three new starters acclimate themselves in the secondary, Howard needs to be a time-eating, game-shortening force.
Is that too much to ask from the 2016 fifth-round pick?
The Bears don’t think so. The bar has been raised, and they want Howard to clear it. It’s probably why coach John Fox tabbed him to break the final team huddle at practice Tuesday. Howard might be reserved, but he needs to be in the middle of everything. He’s one of the young faces of the team.
To Howard, his success as a rookie has turned into motivation. The goal isn’t to be happy with a similar season, but rather to have a better season.
“Since I’m a Pro Bowler, people are going to be looking at me and seeing what I’m doing,” Howard said. “If I’m practicing hard, other people are going to want to practice hard when they see me do that. I just try to set the tone when I come out here.”
In a way, Howard already has done that by looking more tone, more fit, more defined than he did last season.
A season spent rumbling for 1,313 yards and six touchdowns didn’t do much damage to Howard’s strong frame. He said four or five massages during the week helped.
“My body responded pretty well,” Howard said. “I took great care of my body, so my body wasn’t really beat up after the season.”
But taking the next step meant some changes were needed. His long runs need to be longer. His breaks during games need to be shorter.
“I don’t want to come off the field as much,” Howard said.
Howard’s offseason plan calls for weight loss while maintaining his strength and power, which make him imposing at the point of contact.
“I want to be like 225 [pounds] during the season, so I’m still trying to cut weight,” said Howard, who weighed 230 at the combine in 2016.
“I thought it was going to be a much slower pace in the NFL because it wasn’t a lot of uptempo [offenses]. But the pace is still fast, so you have to be in great shape. They’re not expecting you to be getting into shape here. You’ve got to come in in shape and be ready.”
Howard didn’t change his training schedule, but rather his eating habits.
“He understands the kind of shape, the kind of conditioning, the kind of work that you need to be in to be strong from Game 1
to Game 16, from the first quarter to the fourth quarter in games,” new running backs coach Curtis Modkins said. “What’s more important is that I want guys to be the best versions of their selves.”
To Modkins, who coached Pro Bowl backs Jamaal Charles and C.J. Spiller early in their careers, it’s on Howard to show what that version is this season.
“We’ll see where that takes us,” Modkins said.
Howard’s character provides a clue to his drive. His inspiring story matters. At 12, he lost his father to pulmonary fibrosis. After two years at UAB, the school ended its football program, prompting a transfer to Indiana, where he gained 1,213 yards in 2015.
“Never let anybody tell you what you can’t do,” Howard said.
Last season, Howard trailed only Cowboys back Ezekiel
Elliott in rushing yards, despite not playing in Week 1 or starting until Week 4. His patience, vision and power in the Bears’ zone scheme stood out on a weekly basis.
Howard said he wants to improve as a receiver, and Modkins said Howard’s footwork and other fundamentals could improve. But Howard’s study habits and ability to diagnose opponents’ tendencies already stand out.
“He has a good understanding of what he’s asked to do in relation to the overall scheme, particularly in the run game,” Modkins said. “A lot of what we do is instinctive, but there’s another side to it that when you understand more, you’re able to set this block up or you’re able to understand where this run is supposed to go.
“Jordan is a really high football IQ guy. He understands football. He’s a football guy. You ask him questions about a guy in 1990, and he knows the answer.”
Interestingly enough, the Bears led the NFL with 551 rushing attempts and 22 rushing touchdowns in 1990.
“I feel like some people might feel like I might have been just a one-year wonder,” Howard said. “That’s motivation to keep coming out here and working and improving my game.”
Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns.