Bears

Another award for Johnny Manziel

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Another award for Johnny Manziel

From Comcast SportsNetJohnny Manziel ran for almost 1,700 yards and 30 touchdowns as a dual-threat quarterback his senior year of high school at Kerrville Tivy.Who would have thought he'd be even more impressive at Texas A&M when pitted against the defenses of the Southeastern Conference?On Tuesday, Manziel picked up another major award for his spectacular debut season. He was voted The Associated Press Player of the Year. As with the Heisman Trophy and Davey O'Brien Award that Manziel already won, the QB nicknamed Johnny Football is the first freshman to collect the AP award.Manziel's 31 votes were more than twice that of second place finisher Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's start linebacker. He is the third straight Heisman-winning quarterback to receive the honor, following Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton.Manziel erased initial doubts about his ability when he ran for 60 yards and a score in his first game against Florida."I knew I could run the ball, I did it a lot in high school," Manziel said in an interview with the AP. "It is just something that you don't get a chance to see in the spring. Quarterbacks aren't live in the spring. You don't get to tackle. You don't get to evade some of the sacks that you would in normal game situations. So I feel like when I was able to avoid getting tackled, it opened some people's eyes a little bit more."The 6-foot-1 Manziel threw for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 1,181 yards and 19 more scores to help the Aggies win 10 games for the first time since 1998 -- and in their inaugural SEC year, too.Ryan Tannehill, Manziel's predecessor now with the Dolphins after being drafted eighth overall this season, saw promise from the young quarterback last year when he was redshirted. But even he is surprised at how quickly things came together for Manziel."It's pretty wild. I always thought he had that playmaking ability, that something special where if somebody came free, he can make something exciting happen," Tannehill said. "I wasn't really sure if, I don't think anyone was sure if he was going to be able to carry that throughout an SEC season, and he's shocked the world and he did it."After Manziel sat out as a redshirt in 2011, Texas A&M's scheduled season-opener against Louisiana Tech this year was postponed because of Hurricane Isaac. That left him to get his first taste of live defense in almost two years against Florida.He responded well, helping the Aggies race to a 17-7 lead early using both his arm and his feet. The Gators shut down Manziel and A&M's offense in the second half and Texas A&M lost 20-17.But Manziel's performance was enough for Texas A&M's coaching staff to realize that his scrambling ability was going to be a big part of what the Aggies could do this season."The first half really showed that I was a little bit more mobile than we had seen throughout the spring," Manziel said. "Me and (then-offensive coordinator) Kliff Kingsbury sat down and really said: Hey we can do some things with my feet as well as throwing the ball.' And it added a little bit of a new dimension."Manziel knew that the biggest adjustment from playing in high school to college would be the speed of the game. Exactly how quick players in the SEC were was still a jolt to the quarterback."The whole first drive I was just seeing how fast they really flew to the ball and I felt like they just moved a whole lot faster," he said of the Florida game. "It was different than what I was used to, different than what I was used to in high school. So it was just having to learn quick and adjust on the fly."He did just that and started piling up highlight reel material by deftly avoiding would-be tacklers to help the Aggies run off five consecutive wins after that.His storybook ride hit a roadblock when he threw a season-high three interceptions in a 24-19 loss to LSU. But Manziel used it as a learning experience, taking to heart some advice he received from Kingsbury."He just told me to have a plan every time, before every snap," Manziel said. "Make sure you have a plan on what you want to do and where you want to go with the ball.""I feel like as the year went on, I just learned the offense more and knew exactly where I wanted to go, instead of maybe evading the blitz and just taking off running for the first down instead of hitting a hot route or throwing it underneath to an open guy and doing things a lot simpler and cleaner."The Aggies and Manziel rebounded from the loss to LSU by winning their last five games, highlighted by their stunning 29-24 upset of top-ranked Alabama on Nov. 10.By the time Manziel wrapped up a 253-yard passing and 92-yard rushing performance to lead Texas A&M to the victory in Tuscaloosa, you could hardly call him a freshman anymore."You keep growing and growing every week," he said. "By the time I played Alabama I had a much better grasp of the game than I did in the first one."The 4,600 yards of total offense Manziel gained in 12 games broke the SEC record for total yards in a season. The record was previously held by 2010 Heisman winner Newton, who needed 14 games to pile up 4,327 yards. The output also made him the first freshman, first player in the SEC and fifth player overall to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a season.Manziel, who turned 20 two days before taking home the Heisman, has been so busy he hasn't had a second to step back and digest the historical significance of his accomplishments this season.He's far more concerned with helping the Aggies extend their winning streak to six games with a win over Oklahoma on Jan. 4 in the Cotton Bowl."I think it will happen after the bowl game and after the season is completely over," he said. "I'm just ready for it to die down a little bit and get back into a practice routine where we get better and hopefully do what we want to do in the bowl game."He'll have to do it without his mentor Kingsbury, who left A&M last week to become coach at Texas Tech, where he starred at quarterback not that long ago. Manziel said is happy Kingsbury got to return to his alma matter, but is still adjusting to the idea of playing without him."I'm the happiest guy on the face of the earth for him," Manziel said, speaking from California where he appeared on the "Tonight Show" Monday evening. "I think he deserves it with how hard he's worked this year to get us where we were. It's bittersweet though, because I'd like him to be here for the entire time that I'm here."Manziel is eager to get back on the field for the Cotton Bowl and is focused on helping the offense pick up where it left off in the regular-season finale."Even though Kliff Kingsbury's not here anymore, we just need to continue to get better and do what we do," Manziel said. "Push tempo, go fast and be the high-flying offense that we have been all year."

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

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USA TODAY

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — The Bears desperately need more from Jordan Howard, which may sound greedy given that he has been one of the only offensive sparks of the last two seasons. And they may be getting it.

Through the early practices in Bears Camp ’18, the nascent offense of coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich has been ... interesting. The intensity and conditions can be posited as factors, but the fact remains that the defense has intercepted a half-dozen passes and the pass rush has had Mitch Trubisky and the other quarterbacks frequently scrambling after coverage locked down their intended receivers.

Amid all that, something decidedly positive and mildly surprising was unfolding.

Rush-and-cover combos force check-downs to shorter routes, in particular running backs. If this were the Kansas City Chiefs offense under Nagy last year, that would have been Kareem Hunt, who caught 84 percent of the 63 passes on which he was targeted. If this were the Bears from 2008 through 2015, that would have been Matt Forte, who never caught fewer than 44 passes in any of his eight Chicago seasons.

But those were thens, this is now, and the featured back in the Chicago offense is Howard. That qualifies as a question for the developing Bears offense, an iteration of the West Coast system that is predicated on positive plays and ball control using the pass.

The reason is that Howard has developed two competing personas through his first two NFL seasons. One was that of a workhorse running back, the first in Bears franchise history to top 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. A model of consistency at 4.6 yards per carry.

The “other” Jordan Howard was the model of inconsistency — a running back among the worst pass-catchers at his position, low-lighted by the drop of a potential game-winning touchdown pass against the Atlanta Falcons last opening day. Howard dropped six of his 29 targets last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The year before he was determined to have dropped seven of his 50 targets.

An emerging 'new' Howard

But maybe that latter was then and this training camp is now.

The defensive pressure has, by chance or by choice, sent Trubisky passes toward Howard. The third-year tailback has responded with both efficient pass-catching and occasionally light acrobatic work, turning off-target throws into positive plays.

The results qualify as a significant positive from early camp. Howard is getting a clean-slate start from Nagy and running backs coach Charles London, and the hope is for a three-down back in the Hunt/Forte mold, which Howard can only be if he is an effective third-down option. His head coach thinks he is.

“Obviously, there’s this façade out there, there’s this notion that (Howard) is just a first- and second-down back, and I don’t believe that,” Nagy said. “Jordan can play all three downs. We’re going to do that. We’re going to use him. And we’re going to use other guys on first and second down when we need to.

“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.”

Wanting Howard to be a three-down force and achieving that are two different things. For his part, Howard has worked to effect what can become a tidal shift for the offense.

“Definitely it’s important to me, just building my confidence more and more with catching the ball and working my body,” Howard said. “It’s definitely important to me. ... I definitely have improved my hand placement. I used to have my hands all over the place, but now coach London is working with me on my hand placement and looking the ball in.”

Possible impact on Howard

The impact of a multi-dimensional Howard cannot be overstated, and it could be overlooked in the buzz of all the other “weapons” the Bears brought in this offseason. It shouldn’t be.

Neither should the effect his enhanced skillset can have for Howard himself.

When the Bears’ offense broke out under Marc Trestman in 2013, finishing second in scoring, Forte caught 74 passes while posting his career-high 1,335 rushing yards on an average of 4.6 yards per carry.

Hunt as a rookie last season led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry while being the Chiefs’ third-leading receiver in both catches and targets. Howard was the only of the top eight leading rushers in 2017 with fewer than Leonard Fournette’s 36.

Tarik Cohen delivered 53 receptions. But Cohen is not a three-down back with the capability of the 200-plus carries that 17 of the top 19 running backs logged last year.

A critical element projects to be Howard’s conditioning and ability to take on a larger and more diverse workload. That limited him in his rookie season, when his usage in fourth quarters dropped at times because he simply wasn’t in requisite shape. The Bears hope that issue and the drops are behind Howard.

“He’s a patient running back,” Nagy said. “I think he as good vision so he’s patient, has good vision, and when you combine that with the power that he has, he finds ways to get yards. The nice thing for us is that we can move him around and do different things.”

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here: