Following a 13-carry, 68-yard showing in the first half of the Bears’ overtime loss to the New York Giants on Sunday, Jordan Howard disappeared from the gameplan, carrying only three more times for a total of eight yards.
Getting away from the run isn’t new for Nagy, especially as it relates to Howard. Still, Sunday represented only the third time this year Howard has averaged more than four yards per carry — though, for what it’s worth, those three games have all been defeats.
Nagy pointed to the Giants doing some different things defensively to shut down the run in the second half, which is valid. It’s also valid that, on the first running play the Bears called in the second half, someone on the offensive line missed an assignment, allowing Dalvin Tomlinson to come into the backfield untouched and drop Howard for a loss of three yards.
That was one of those plays Nagy referenced when he said “there are some times where we could have Walter Payton back there and he’s not getting any yards.”
When Matt Nagy said there were some plays vs. New York on which "we could Walter Payton back there and he’s not getting any yards," this first run of the second half is an example. Nobody blocks Giants DT Dalvin Tomlinson, and there wasn't much Jordan Howard could do. pic.twitter.com/vZQvcQhFl7— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) December 4, 2018
Five of Howard’s 16 runs went for zero or negative yards against the Giants, with no single reason behind that issue. It’s been a problem all year, too: 39 of Howard’s 178 rushing attempts this year have gone for zero or negative yards (22 percent). That’s about one in every five times Howard runs the ball he doesn’t gain any yards or loses yards.
“Just as a group, as a unit we’ve got to do better,” running backs coach Charles London said. “It’s a breakdown somewhere. It’s a back missing a cut, maybe a block here, a block there. So it’s collective as a group and we just gotta do a good job of every guy knowing their responsibility and making sure that we correct that.”
But interestingly, Howard ran for zero or negative yards on 21 percent of his total carries in 2016 and 2017, too – years in which he became the first running back in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons to begin his career. The average yards to gain when Howard had a zero/negative yard run in 2016-2017 was the 8.3 yards; in 2018, it’s 7.2 (which is the sign of a better offense as a whole). A higher percentage of Howard’s zero/negative runs came on first down in 2016 and 2017 (69 percent) than in 2018 (64 percent).
So while Nagy may be hesitant to stick to running the ball when Howard loses yardage on first down, that’s always been a part of his game, to an extent.
Perhaps, then, Howard’s negative runs are under a greater spotlight because Nagy is quicker to try something else than the previous regime. And that runs against conventional wisdom, especially when starting a backup quarterback.
“I don’t care about that, no,” Nagy said. “The conventional side of it? No. I don’t — no, I don’t worry about that. I don’t care about that. I really don’t.”
Not caring about conventional wisdom has led to the first-place Bears’ offense being healthier in 2018 than it was with as the focal point in 2016 and 2017, years in which this team won a total of eight games. That doesn’t mean Nagy isn’t looking for a fix to the run game — he very much is — but with every passing week, it looks less likely that fix will come before the end of the season.
“As we go here, you can't be one-dimensional and we're going to keep plugging away,” Nagy said. “My confidence is not where it needs to be right now, but I feel like I'm in a good spot right now, we are at a good spot as coaches and we know that we got to get better.”