Jordan Howard ready to 'play freely' as he pushes toward rushing title

Dowell Loggains could see a switch flip in Jordan Howard.

In the first half of the 33-7 victory Sunday over the Bengals, the Bears’ second-year running back failed to gain the yard needed for a first down on second-and-1. As he came to the sideline, Howard told the offensive coordinator, “I have to get that.”

“And from there on, I just saw a little different edge in his finish,” Loggains said. “He took a little personal responsibility and was disappointed on that second-and-1 that he didn’t get the first for us.”

Howard, 23, finished the day as the first Bear to rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. After gaining 1,313 as a rookie, he has put up 1,032, is a candidate to make the Pro Bowl for the second straight year, has an outside shot at the NFL rushing title and ranks among the handful of Bears youngsters who represent hope for the future.

Howard has started every game despite a right shoulder injury that has lingered longer than expected. He rushed for only 6 and 38 yards against the Eagles and 49ers in Weeks 12 and 13. In totaling 147 against the Bengals, he said he was able to get “back to my violent ways” and be more physical behind an offensive line that stepped up in right guard Kyle Long’s absence.

“It was a mindset, and I was feeling a lot better than I had the previous two weeks,” Howard said Monday. “The O-line gave me great holes to run through, and I was able to get to the second level and punish the defenders.”

Howard was speaking during a lull at an autograph session at the Jewel-Osco in Deerfield in support of the team’s annual coat drive. It was a small event given that snow was falling on Chicago’s north suburbs, and Howard had trouble getting there after looking outside and realizing he had a problem.

The Alabama native isn’t fond of driving in the elements — “My car’s not the best for driving in the snow,” he said — so Howard ordered an Uber to take him to meet the waiting fans, who presented footballs for him to autograph and complimented him on Sunday’s game.

Chalk up the inclement weather as another obstacle Howard wasn’t going to let stop him.

“(The shoulder injury) is pretty tough,” he said. “I thought I was over it, but it kept bothering me a little bit. Now I’m finally over it, so it feels great to be able to play freely and not have any pain.”

The pain has been evident at times, most notably in the Week 3 victory over the Steelers, when Howard twice had to be tended to while he sat on the field, his right arm hanging limply at his side. He re-entered the game each time and played on short rest the next week in a Thursday night game against the Packers.

Howard has not been listed on the injury report all season, and he credited the training staff for getting him ready each week.

“It says a lot about him,” coach John Fox said. “There are guys who sometimes have to be more than 100 percent to play. Jordan’s not one of those guys.”

Fox wasn’t the only one noting Howard’s willingness to fight through pain. Defensive end Akiem Hicks called Howard “the toughest RB I ever played with” in promoting him for the Pro Bowl on Twitter on Monday.

Howard’s attitude about this injury appears to come in part from the past.

After he battled ankle and knee injuries during a still-productive junior season at Indiana, he received what he said was an unfair injury-prone label before the Bears selected him in the fifth round. The label clearly irks him.

“I never want to miss any games,” Howard said. “Any game I can play, I want to try to play. Coming out for the draft, they were saying I was injury-prone and all this and that, so I definitely want to prove people wrong.”

Not everything has been more difficult this season.

Howard said he’s in better shape after a full offseason of football conditioning rather than the draft-preparation conditioning he did in the spring before his rookie season. Loggains agreed Howard is in better shape and complimented his vision, patience and ability to gain yards after contact. But Loggains noted Howard’s pass protection and receiving need more work.

Howard said he has a better feel for what defenses are bringing against him.

“The game has slowed down a lot more this year because I know what to expect,” he said. “I’ve seen the things the defense (is) going to do, so I know how to combat everything they’re going to throw at (me).”

Those factors have helped Howard climb to fourth among NFL rushing leaders, behind the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell (1,105 yards), the Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt (1,046) and the Rams’ Todd Gurley (1,035).

Howard said Monday he never imagined he would make the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. Now he’s pushing for a second appearance and a shot at the rushing title.

“Before the season started, I said I wanted to lead the league in rushing,” Howard said. “I still have a shot to reach that goal. It would mean a lot for me and the O-line as well.”

He would have to make up a lot of ground to do it, but that shouldn’t slow his effort.

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