Eagles right guard Brandon Brooks can list several reasons he likes Jordan Howard as a running back, but the one that stands out is this: “He runs hard as [expletive].”
It’s hard not to like a guy who runs hard as [expletive], which is why Eagles fans were critical of Doug Pederson for not giving Howard double-digit carries until the third game of the season, and why Chicago Bears fans were so upset last spring when their team traded Howard for a sixth-round draft pick (which can become a fifth, based on production.)
“He never complains. He always gives everything he has. I love that guy, and he’s a great teammate,” Carson Wentz said this past week as the Eagles prepared to host the Bears. It will be Howard’s first encounter with the team he gained 3,370 yards for, over three seasons, with 24 touchdowns.
It’s not hard to elicit fervent statements from teammates about Howard, such as when Wentz referenced Howard’s lead block on Miles Sanders’ 65-yard touchdown run at Buffalo last Sunday.
“He’s very much a team guy -- as you saw in the last game, he’s willing to do whatever,” Wentz said. “He’s the lead blocker on Miles’ long touchdown, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, he’s picking up blitzes as good as anybody in the league, in my opinion, at the running back position.”
It is much harder to get Howard to say anything revealing. Asked Friday whether he had the bigger advantage, knowing the ins and outs of the Bears’ defensive front, or they had it, knowing his running style and preferences, Howard seemed to want to get through the answer as quickly as possible, without delivering any insight.
“I don’t really think anybody has an advantage,” he said. “That’s a tough defense, but we’re a good offense as well, so it’s definitely going to be a battle.”
He said it doesn’t mean much that he is playing his former team, or playing second-year Bears coach Matt Nagy, who thought Howard didn’t fit his offense.
“You just got to treat it like a regular game. Can’t do anything different,” said Howard, who leads the Eagles with 443 rushing yards on 100 carries, 4.4 yards per carry. “I’m excited for it, just because I get to see my old teammates and stuff, people I played with for three years, that’ll be exciting. But I’m just going to treat it like another game.”
Later, he reiterated that it was “not a revenge game.”
Asked if he has spoken with any Bears leading up to the game, Howard said he made contact with running back/receiver Tarik Cohen: “I talked to Tarik a little bit; I told him I’m going to come over to the sideline and tackle him, maybe. That’s about it.”
Chicago’s ground game has suffered in his absence. Rookie David Montgomery is the leading rusher in a pass-first attack, with 98 carries for 366 yards, 3.7 yards per carry. Cohen has just 24 carries, for 56 yards, 2.3 yards per carry, along with 32 catches for 184 yards.
“I don’t need to prove myself to anybody. I don’t need any validation from anybody,” Howard said. “I’m my own worst critic. … I don’t care what anybody else says.”
Howard, a fifth-round pick in 2016, typifies the scouting preferences of former Eagles player personnel vice president Joe Douglas, who is now the Jets’ general manager.
Douglas scouted Howard for the Bears before coming to the Eagles just after that draft. Howard isn’t flashy -- he isn’t going to author very many of those 65-yard bursts like Sanders had at Buffalo. Howard’s longest run of the season so far is a 20-yarder. But he is rock-solid and dependable. After carrying the ball 23 times at Buffalo, Howard wasn’t fatigued. He took pride in having worn down the Bills.
Nagy never said anything inflammatory about Howard, but the sense that the coach preferred a different-style back persisted through Howard’s least-productive pro season in 2018, in which he gained 935 yards on 250 carries, just 3.7 yards per carry.
"I know that he's doing well," Nagy said this week. "Any time you cut ties with players, and players that are good people, that's just where we were. We were at a time where we went in a different direction. Sometimes change is good for everybody. We're happy that he's doing well."
Of course, the change hasn’t really been all that good for the Bears, so far. Nagy said the run game’s problems have been “kind of a mixture of everything, at different times,” including the loss of three-time Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long to a hip injury. Last week’s 17-16 setback to the Chargers, on an on-brand late missed field goal, was encouraging in that Montgomery galloped to his best day by far, 27 carries for 135 yards.
“That’s not really anything I’m paying attention to,” Howard said. “I’m focused on the Eagles.”
Bears defensive end Bilal Nichols, a Delaware native who played for the Blue Hens, said the Philly Howard looks a lot like the Chicago Howard.
“He’s not scared to lower his shoulder,” Nichols told the Daily Herald, of suburban Chicago. “Actually, that’s all he wants to do. And he’s great in pass protection. He’s just doing what he’s been doing his whole career, from what I’m seeing on film.”
Brooks, a cerebral offensive lineman, said he finds Howard an excellent resource in making adjustments during games.
“I can’t tell how many times I come to him on the sideline, we’re literally in the middle of the game, after the play, and it’d be just like practice – ‘all right, what did you see here? I was blocking it this way, this is how I saw it,’ ” Brooks said. “We talk a lot – ‘How do you want us to do it?’ ”
Brooks, like Wentz, admires the way Howard picks up a blitz, at 6-feet, 224.
“He’s been rocking linebackers off their feet,” Brooks said.
The Howard divorce from Chicago was painful. There was an uncomfortable postseason interlude, following the Bears’ double-doink playoff elimination at the hands of the Eagles, when Howard knew he was being shopped. Reports said he’d deleted Bears photos from his social media.
“It didn’t take me too long” to move on, following the trade, Howard said. “I kind of knew it was going to happen in advance. … I was just ready to move on.”
Whether he fit Nagy’s offense or not was “not for me to worry about,” he said.
Howard, who turns 25 on Saturday, is in the final year of his rookie contract. He can be a free agent next spring, though the Eagles might be motivated to bring him back, given that he has been the best of their offseason acquisitions this season.
“I would love to be back,” he said. “I love Philly, I’m loving my teammates and this city.”
Howard has plenty of experience refocusing, bouncing back. His game-day ritual includes wearing a faded T-shirt under his jersey that memorializes Reginald Howard, Jordan’s father. Reginald died of pulmonary fibrosis when Jordan was 12.
Later, Howard was playing for Alabama-Birmingham when the school dropped football. He finished his career at Indiana, as a teammate of Eagles backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld. Howard said Friday that Sudfeld pushed the Eagles to trade for him.
“They listened to him, finally,” said Howard, who lived with Sudfeld right after the trade.
“I’m just good at adapting to new things. You never know what’s going to happen,” Howard said. “Just got to be able to adapt and adjust. Just [my] upbringing, losing my dad, had to deal with that. There’s not really too much I can’t deal with.