Will Blackmon thought he had an 88-yard interception return for a touchdown as he was sprinting down the right sideline after one of Matt Barkley’s five interceptions Saturday. By the time safety Duke Ihenacho knocked down Bears tackle Charles Leno, Blackmon let his mind wander.
“Duke made a hell of a block, I looked and I just saw the grass,” he said. “I was thinking like, ‘Hmm, what can I do.’ I think of pulling out a Rolodex of just dances and like, ‘I’m going to do something. It’s Christmas Eve.’
“But then I got taken out with a tranquilizer dart.”
Jordan Howard, the Bears’ running back, chased him down, dove and tripped Blackmon at the 9. In a year filled with mistakes, losses and spectacular injuries, the rookie proved, for the hundredth time this season, that he’s a rare Bears player worth watching.
That will be even more true in Week 17, when the Bears could be without rookie pass-rusher Leonard Floyd, who suffered his second concussion in five weeks Saturday.
The intrigue behind Barkley vanished as quickly as Blackmon did down the sideline, too.
With 61 rushing yards against the Vikings, Howard, who has 1,178 in 12 games, will pass Matt Forte for the most in franchise history for a rookie. His 18 rushes for 119 yards Saturday gave Howard his sixth 100-yard rushing game of the season, the most for any Bears rookie.
“It’s something that we’d always seen in training camp,” receiver Alshon Jeffery said. “I mean he’s an impressive guy. He’s impressing us. It’s something we’ve been seeing since training camp. We just wanted to see what we do when he get his opportunity when he gets the ball.”
But will he get it inside the 5-yard line?
After Howard ran for 23 yards and then 5 more on the next play in the first quarter, the Bears decided to throw on second-and-goal from the 4 — and then again on third down.
Both were incomplete, and Connor Barth’s 22-yard field goal was blocked.
Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains has been critiqued all year for not pounding Howard.
“Hindsight is 20/20 — let’s make that totally clear,” coach John Fox said after Saturday’s game. “I think we did the same on a later drive and scored a touchdown. Sometimes what the defense is doing and what we are capable of in our matchups, it comes down to execution, not just what play it is.”
The play Fox referenced was Barkley’s first-and-goal touchdown pass to Deonte Thompson from the 3 — though it came with 1:23 to play in the game, the clock running and the Bears down by 20.
“It wasn’t frustrating for me,” Howard said. “I just go with whatever the coach calls. I’m always going to have faith in whatever he calls is going to work.”
Despite ranking fourth in the NFL with a 5.1 yards per carry average, Howard has only six rushing touchdowns. That’s almost one-third the total of league leader LeGarrette Blount, who has 17. The Falcons and Bills each have two running backs with more touchdowns, apiece, than Howard.
Howard’s most exciting red zone play, then, was the tackle he made on Blackmon.
His stellar season deserves better in the Sunday finale. In a game that matters only for draft position, Howard will one of the few players worth your attention.
“As a team, we don’t care what our record is — we might be losing, but we’re going to come back and fight and give it our best shot,” he said. “We don’t have a ‘don’t care’ mentality. We are all going to fight to the finish.”
When the NFL announced its Pro Bowl teams on Tuesday, Howard was perhaps the only Bears player who could have conceivably gotten his hopes up.
Two of the three NFC running backs selected were unimpeachable, though: Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott leads the NFL in rushing. The Cardinals’ David Johnson leads all running backs in receiving yards and has 10 more rushing touchdowns than Howard.
The Falcons’ Devonta Freeman averages a half-yard per rush less than Howard, though. The Bears’ rookie can still earn a trip to Orlando as an alternate, though — particularly if Elliott or Freeman reach the Super Bowl.
“I don’t wanna talk about the Pro Bowl, but I think Jordan’s had a really good year and he’s helped this football team,” Loggains said last week. “Obviously, it hasn’t shown in the win-loss column, but he’s helped our offense.
“He’s a good running back. I think he can get a lot better. He’s gonna be a big part of this organization going forward.”
A look at the Bears’ top three rookie rushers:
When Howard eclipsed 1,000 yards this season last week against the Packers, he became the second-youngest Bears player to do so. Here’s how old the others were:
Rashaan Salaam/1995/21 years, 2 months, 16 days
Jordan Howard/2016/22 years, 1 month, 16 days
Walter Payton/1976/22 years, 3 months, 20 days