When I drafted Jordan Howard in my fantasy football league at the beginning of the season, I had two primary concerns right off the bat. The main one revolved around pass-catching. Given the way the game, and more specifically, the running back position, has evolved in recent years, a more traditional back like Howard was probably never going to amass the sort of point-totals other backs could have. And when you throw in the fact that he’s historically been quite bad at, you know, catching the ball when it comes to him, I certainly had my doubts.
But I love drafting Bears players and Howard was one of the very best (I mean, the dude has posted back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons). And whaddaya know!? Early on, Howard has not only dispelled the notion that he’s incapable of catching the ball (he’s currently 10-12), he’s been getting as many targets as ever in this new, Matt Nagy-led offense.
Of course, that leads directly into my second, and more pressing concern: usage.
When the Bears hired Nagy back in January, we began discussing how his presence might lend itself to more playing time for Tarik Cohen – a faster, more versatile back with extreme pass-catching prowess – based on Nagy’s history in Kansas City and with Kareem Hunt, in particular. You see, Hunt was already a fairly-often targeted back with the Chiefs for the first 11 games of the season (42 targets, 3.8 targets per game), but when Matt Nagy took over the play calling, Hunt received 21 targets in just four games (5.25 targets per game). If he was going to be calling a similar game in Chicago, the thinking went, that might mean more time for Cohen and less time for Howard.
Well, all my worst fears came to light on Sunday afternoon. For the first time all season (and the first time in his career), Cohen (13 attempts) rushed more often than Howard (11) and out-paced him in the target department (8 to 1), as well. Fantasy-wise, that meant just 2.5 points for Howard and 28.9 points for Cohen. Needless to say, I was sweating my decision. But I’m not so sure I needed to be. At least, in terms of the future.
For one, Howard is still clearly the team’s featured and most talented running back. He’s still just 23 years old and he already has two 1,000 yard rushing seasons (a feat I very much expect him to repeat this year, as well). On top of that – and regardless of everything else that comes next – when the weather begins to get cold in Chicago and throughout the country, having a thunder-back like Howard who can shred defenders and fight off tackles like some sort of rock-goblin is going to be a dream come true for Nagy, regardless of his preferred offensive strategy.
But there’s another reason for his extremely-low usage on Sunday and it’s all matchup oriented. As of today, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have faced the ninth most pass attempts and have just one interception (tied for 2nd fewest) and eight sacks (t-6th fewest), and have allowed a league worst 358 passing yards per game (1,432 passing yards in total, most in the NFL).
By contrast (and as expected), the Bucs defense has defended against just 351 rushes this season (8th fewest) and have allowed 87.8 rushing yards per game (6th best). Clearly, no matter who had what strengths in Chicago before Sunday, the Bears best chance was always going to be in the air.*
*Yes, the Bears aerial assault on Sunday is caked into these numbers, but the revealed broader trend remains perfectly accurate.
And it was! But that only compounded the problem! In case you missed it, Mitch Trubisky threw an amazing six passing touchdowns on Sunday, and I’m guessing after the first three or four, Nagy was comfortable simply allowing him to keep the ball in the air. Because why not!
So I guess what I’m saying is this: nothing about Sunday’s game or Howard’s skillset was ever going to lead to heavy usage for the Bears’ featured back. And that’s okay – even for those of us who want to make sure a guy as talented as Howard is properly utilized. Because, in fact, that’s what’s so great about having Cohen on the roster at all. It prevents a coach like Nagy, who might have already be leaning towards more passes to his running backs than John Fox ever would’ve considered, from forcing a square peg (Howard) into a round hole (pass-catcher).
At the same time, if Howard’s skills in this arena continue to advance, he’ll be able to deploy him more often in these sort of matchups while maintaining that flexibility to use him – fresher and healthier – in colder-weather games down the line. It’s a win-win … except, maybe, for fantasy owners in the short term (but who cares – we just want the Bears to keep on rolling).
But here’s the thing, I wouldn’t expect a switch to flip immediately after the bye. The Miami Dolphins defense has allowed 1,139 net passing yards so far this season, which is 7th most in football (ditto their 284.8 passing yards per game). With that said, the big difference between Miami and Tampa Bay is that the Dolphins have also allowed way more rushing yards per game (110.5, 13th worst) than the Bucs (87.8, 20th). So perhaps a more balanced attack is in order.
And if Trubisky and Nagy hold up their end of the bargain, that balanced attack should work out for Jordan Howard fans, fantasy football owners, and the Chicago Bears, in general.