Bears

Rookie stars lead Redskins to NFC East crown

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Rookie stars lead Redskins to NFC East crown

From Comcast SportsNetLANDOVER, Md. (AP) -- "R-G-3!" was all Redskins fans needed to chant when they wanted to express their love for Robert Griffin III. For the lesser-known rookie, they opted for his whole name: "Alf-red Mor-ris!"It's a new generation that has Washington atop the NFC East for the first time this millennium. There's Griffin -- the vocal leader, the first-round draft pick, the Heisman Trophy winner, the team captain. And there's Morris -- the out-of-nowhere sixth-rounder from Florida Atlantic who merely ran for 200 yards and three touchdowns in the division-clincher and broke the franchise single-season rushing record."These," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said, "aren't ordinary rookies."The Redskins claimed their first division title since 1999, beating the archrival Dallas Cowboys 28-18 Sunday night in a winner-take-all finale to end the NFL's regular season."I was 9 years old in 1999," said Griffin, sporting a black baseball cap commemorating the title. "So I stand before you at 22, and the Redskins are the NFC East champions. To me, talking to Alfred after the game, it's the first time the Redskins have been champs since 99 and we came in and we did it in one year. The sky's the limit for this team."Griffin, gradually regaining his explosiveness after spraining his right knee four weeks ago, ran for 63 yards and a touchdown for the Redskins (10-6), who finished with seven straight wins after their bye week. They became the first NFL team to rally from 3-6 and make the playoffs since the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1996.With the running game working so well, Griffin didn't have to throw much. He completed nine of 18 passes for 100 yards.Washington will host Seattle next Sunday, the Redskins' third consecutive playoff game against the Seahawks. They lost at Seattle as a wild-card team in the 2005 and 2007 seasons."I've been here for the 4-12, the bad times, almost being the joke of the NFL," veteran defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. "But to do this with this group of guys -- the old and the new -- it's good to be here."Certainly, Sunday night was mostly about the new. Morris had touchdown runs of 1, 17 and 32 yards and was so dominant that the Cowboys -- missing their five best run defenders due to injuries -- fell hook, line and sinker nearly every time the Redskins faked the ball to him. He finished with 1,613 yards for the year, topping Clinton Portis' 1,516 in 2005."I'll tell you what: Alfred Morris became a star tonight," Redskins tight end Chris Cooley said. "He deserved it. He's a phenomenal football player."To which Morris answered: "I'm never a star. I'll never be a star. Other people might think I'm a star, but I'm just Alfred."He won't have much choice if he keeps this up. On the Redskins' go-ahead drive in the third quarter, six plays were runs by Morris and the other three involved fakes to him. The touchdown came when Griffin faked to Morris -- one of several times linebacker DeMarcus Ware was totally fooled by deception in the backfield -- and ran 10 yards around left end to put Washington ahead 14-7.The Cowboys (8-8), meanwhile, will miss the playoffs for the third straight season, having stumbled in a make-or-break end-of-regular-season game for the third time in five years.Tony Romo threw three interceptions -- matching his total from the last eight games combined. A poor throw was picked by Rob Jackson when the Cowboys had a chance to drive for a winning score in the final minutes."I feel as though I let our team down," Romo said.Romo completed 20 of 31 passes for 218 yards, and his career is now further tainted by post-Christmas disappointments, including Week 17 losses to the Philadelphia Eagles (44-6) in 2008 and the New York Giants (31-14) last year. He's also 1-3 in playoff games."Your legacy will be written when you're done playing the game," Romo said. "And when it's over with, you'll look back. ... It's disappointing not being able to get over that hump."The Cowboys played catch-up after Morris' 32-yard scamper gave the Redskins a 21-10 cushion with 10:32 to play, pulling within three on a 10-yard pass to Kevin Ogletree and a 2-point conversion with 5:50 left. But Morris' third touchdown sealed the win with 1:09 remaining.The Cowboys also dealt with in-game injuries to receivers Miles Austin (left ankle), Dez Bryant (back) and Dwayne Harris (lower leg). Bryant, who had a torridsecond half of the season despite breaking his left index finger, had four catches for 71 yards.Washington's slow start this season prompted coach Mike Shanahan to dismiss playoff hopes and declare the remaining seven games would determine which players would be on his team "for years to come."Griffin and his teammates had other plans, and the coach quickly changed his tune. Now the Redskins will be playing in January."All odds were against us," Morris said. "But we believed in each other."Notes: Griffin set two more NFL rookie records. His 102.4 passer rating topped Ben Roethlisberger's 98.1 in 2004, and his 1.3 percentage of passes intercepted is better than Charlie Batch's 1.98 in 1998. Griffin had already set the league mark for rushing yards by a rookie QB (815). ... The Redskins also set a franchise record for fewest turnovers in a season with 14, fewer even than the 1982 team that played only nine regular-season games because of a players strike.

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: