Just before the NFL trade deadline in October, a team in the playoff hunt offered the Bears a third-round draft pick for running back Jordan Howard.
General manager Ryan Pace declined, one of several smart decisions Pace made for the eventual NFC North champions.
A source said the Bears held on to Howard for their own playoff chase, faith he rewarded with a strong final month. Howard gained 399 yards on 88 carries in five games down the stretch, providing the reliability his running lacked earlier in the season.
Nobody feels satisfied with Howard’s 935-yard season in 2018, but both of his 100-yard games came in that pivotal period when he averaged 4.5 yards per carry. He gave a defensive-driven playoff team a necessary element, a power running game.
With due respect to global warming, the Bears can’t count on the conditions being any milder next December. Howard is the flannel shirt in coach Matt Nagy’s closet full of trendier clothes, something Nagy might not miss until a chill returns. That makes Howard worth keeping, even as trade rumors reignited recently at the NFL combine.
Not that Nagy sounded enamored last week with the idea of keeping Howard when describing the ideal running back for his offense and decrying any notion of needing the kind of workhorse like Howard who will get more than 20 carries.
“You want to be able to have a guy that has really good vision that can make guys miss,” Nagy said at the combine. “At the same time, there’s that balance of being a hybrid, being able to make things happen in the pass game, too, but where you’re not one-dimensional. And that’s not easy.’’
It’s not hard to think Nagy believes he needs Howard like he needs a comb. Howard’s inability to make people miss contributed to his dropping to the fifth round of the 2016 draft, and the next time anybody uses the term “hybrid” to describe him will be the first.
He is a straight-line runner who makes his mark with force more than finesse. Those traits always made Howard awkward in Nagy’s offense, despite being the only Bears running back to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
But some realities must be reinforced for anyone entertaining the fantasy the Bears would be better off unloading Howard.
First, Howard represents a reasonable $2 million salary-cap hit as he enters the final season of his rookie deal — a contract year offering motivation that can benefit the Bears. He’s a cheap insurance policy. The Bears can keep Howard without making him the focal point of an offense that will evolve into one that spreads the football among multiple playmakers.
That was the hope last season, when the Bears won their last four games without scoring more than 24 points as Howard averaged 18 carries and 81 rushing yards. No good reason exists for the Bears to weaken their roster by getting rid of a strength. They have no obvious alternative. Tarik Cohen’s versatility and explosiveness only would be enhanced if Howard returns. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, Howard finished the 2018 regular season with five straight clutch performances.