Seeing success: Why Jordan Howard is a better player after eye surgery
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From offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains’ vantage point, running back Jordan Howard’s vision wasn’t a problem last season.
After all, Howard became the NFL’s second-leading rusher because of his ability to see cutback lanes and burst through them.
“It’s really hard to get a back who can create the explosive [runs] he did last year,” Loggains said. “With the offensive line and him — his vision and feet — he has so many good skills.”
His vision, however, had been an issue for years. He had astigmatism and didn’t like wearing contact lenses. “Faraway things” were hard to see and identify, he said.
“I was just going out there kind of blind,” Howard said. “I couldn’t see far away.”
Nearby things weren’t a problem. Howard could always see and elude defenders. He could always recognize the flow of the defense and find the holes.
His 5.2 yards per carry and 10 runs of 20 yards or more — tied for the third-most in the NFL last year — were proof.
“He’s a big guy who can get through small creases,” linebacker Jerrell Freeman said, “and I’m still trying to figure out how.’’
Howard’s pass-catching, though, was a problem.
“I could see close up,” he said. “Catching passes and things like that when it’s further away, that’s where I needed the vision to improve.”
Photorefractive keratectomy, the laser eye surgery commonly known as PRK, became an option, then an answer.
During the offseason, Howard discussed the surgery with Bears head trainer Nate Breske, who planned to have the procedure himself. Breske helped Howard feel comfortable with it as a course of action.
In February, Howard had his first consultation. By April, he drove downtown with his mother to undergo the surgery.
“I had been thinking about it for some years,” Howard said. “When we had Phase 1 [of the offseason program] . . . I was like, I’ll just do it.”
PRK surgery is a quick but very technical procedure performed on the surface of the cornea, said John Vukich, an ophthalmologist based in Madison, Wisconsin, who is a member of the governing board of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery.
“The actual contour that is applied is a computer-generated image,” Vukich said. “It is a very high-tech way of looking at what it is exactly that creates the blur, what exactly is the issue that needs to be corrected. The laser profile is then appropriately programmed, and that’s applied to the surface of the cornea.”
The entire process can take 10 minutes. Eye drops are typically recommended afterward, and other than some minor light sensitivity, recoveries are typically quick.
“This isn’t something that wears off or goes away or needs to be redone,” Vukich said. “This is a lifelong correction.”
Vukich said PRK surgery is popular among athletes, but also with members of the military, firefighters and police officers, calling it “the preferred procedure for individuals who have high-impact lifestyles.”
What does this mean for Howard?
“His ability to judge distance [and] the ability to have that hand-eye coordination is really dependent upon the ability to see and follow the ball into your arms,” Vukich said. “This is really a great plus for him. It’s no surprise whatsoever from my perspective that it would improve his performance as an athlete.”
In other words, the Bears might have a better player.
“I can definitely track the ball a lot better,” Howard said. “It’s easier for me because I used to only be able to see the ball when it got right up on me.”
That hasn’t shown up in the preseason yet. Ironically, Howard missed the Bears’ 24-23 victory against the Cardinals after getting poked in the eye in practice. But he wasn’t seriously hurt. He practiced Monday.
Howard described the changes in his vision after the surgery as “instant” and “definitely beneficial.”
“I used to squint a lot because I couldn’t see stuff,” he said. “Now I don’t have to squint. My eyes, they’re never hurting from squinting so much. I can just see the field a lot better. It’s definitely easier to catch now.”
Loggains has seen that firsthand since the offseason program. To him, criticism of Howard’s rookie season starts with his hands. He simply dropped too many passes.
Howard had 29 receptions for 298 yards and a touchdown. But he also had seven drops. In general, he wasn’t a reliable option. He was targeted 50 times, giving him a 58 percent catch rate.
Other running backs were better. LeSean McCoy had a league-best catch rate of 87.7 percent (50-for-57) for the Bills. The Falcons’ Devonta Freeman wasn’t far behind at 83.1 percent (54-for-65)
“[Howard] has better hands than what he showed,” Loggains said. “He’s done a much better job in camp.”
Howard’s decision to undergo eye surgery fits his offseason, too. He already reported in significantly better shape than he was in last year.
The Bears see only good things ahead.
“He’s going to be good for a while,” Freeman said. “His work ethic and just his willingness to be out there and stay out there and practice, he’s going to be a great running back.”
Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns.