Jordan Howard has made his first-ever selection to an all-star game of any kind something memorable, being selected on Wednesday to a spot in the Pro Bowl later this month in Orlando, the only Bear currently currently set to appear in the NFL's annual exhibition.
"I wasn't selected for the all-star game in my home state, so this is my first all-star game," Howard said Wednesday. "My hard work is paying off now, so I just appreciate that."
Howard, one of only five rookies (Barry Sanders, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, Dallas rookie Ezekiel Elliott) in NFL history to average 5.0 yards on 250 or more rushing attempts, replaces Arizona running back David Johnson, a scratch because of a sprained left MCL suffered in the Cardinals' final game. Howard finished second to Elliott in rushing, and was third in Pro Bowl balloting behind Elliott and Johnson.
Not a bad season for a young player who didn't even crack his team's starting lineup until almost a fourth of the way through the season.
Because of the injury to Johnson, and Elliott possibly on track for a longer playoff run or for the Super Bowl with the Cowboys, Howard said he was not entirely surprised at his inclusion. Former running backs coach Stan Drayton, who left the Bears to become offensive coordinator for the University of Texas, set Howard's mind right.
"He was just telling me I had a chance to be one of the best running backs in this league for a long time," Howard said.
Howard, the Bears' pick in the fifth round of the 2016 draft, also becomes just the second Bear running back (Gale Sayers) to reach the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. Howard set a franchise rookie record with 1,313 rushing yards in 15 games (13 starts) despite not moving into the starting lineup until Week 4 against Detroit after an ankle injury to Jeremy Langford. He still finished the season on the field for more than 68 percent of the Bears' total plays.
The rookie was active for the opener in Houston but was a DNP-CD. He then turned the slight into something positive.
"It was discouraging but it was also motivational," Howard said. "It was kind of tough but it motivated me to try to get on the field… .
After that first game I was just going to do my hardest to get on the field."
With 29 receptions for an additional 298 yards, Howard finished fifth in yards from scrimmage (1,611), and his yards per game (87.5) ranked third behind only Elliott (108.7) and Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell (105.7).
One quirk of 2016 was that Howard did not immediately flash during training camp or much beyond the final preseason game, at Cleveland. Like most rookie running backs, Howard struggled with pass protection and did not distinguish himself as a receiver. Consequently, coaches did not fully appreciate what they had until Howard broke a 36-yard run at Dallas in Week 3, in place of Langford.
"He's a much better player on Sunday than he is during the week just because his running style is different," said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. "Sometimes it's hard to see that. Where you can see other guys' quickness and stuff like that show up, you don't get to see the vision because it's not live.
"In Cleveland we saw a little glimpse of it in the preseason, but that was really it. I know Coach Fox talked early in the season, like, ‘Hey, I really like this guy.' Early in preseason he was high on him. We really didn't start getting him rolling until that fourth week of the season. All of the sudden you're like, ‘wow, this guy is a first- and second-down back; this guy is a good player, once the pads come on.'"