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Don’t Let Jordan Howard Run Away from You

USA TODAY Sports - Mike Dinovo

Jordan Howard was quietly a top tier running back last season. Don’t agree? Take a look at the stats.

Certainly the running back position is not the sexiest one out there. Left to do what is often considered grunt work, running backs in today’s high flying NFL often enjoy less stardom than wide receivers or quarterbacks. With this being the case, then, there is a limit to the number of rushers the media is willing to talk about. Usually dominated by discussions about Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and now Ezekiel Elliott, quieter, quality backs sometimes don’t get the attention they deserve. 

This is where Jordan Howard, starting running back for the Chicago Bears, comes into play. Running for a 3-13 squad with the fifth-worst scoring offense and the third most turnovers last season didn’t help Howard receive recognition he deserves.


Meanwhile, Bell, Johnson, and Elliott were all parts of top-ten offenses. Further, it was because they played such crucial roles in those offenses that so much attention was focused on them. In terms of Elliott and Johnson, and Bell certainly down the stretch, these backs were the very reasons their respective offenses were able to run as effectively as they did. People will say this puts Bell, Johnson, and Elliott in their own category, but the numbers say Howard belongs in the top tier as well. 

Per Start Comparison

Because each of the above-mentioned backs started in different numbers of games last season, we’ll take a per start approach to looking at their respective production. 

The first and most obvious stat to look at is rush yards per game. In this category, Howard ranked third in the league behind Elliott and Bell, outpacing David Johnson by over 10 yards per game. However, a better indication of what we’re looking for in this case is actually rush yards per game start. While this doesn’t place Howard above the likes of Elliott and Bell, it brings him within eight and six yards of them, respectively. This notably doubles the gap between Howard and Johnson in this category. 


We can also take a look at big run (10+ yards) comparisons between these players. Elliott had 3.20 big runs per start, Bell had 3.08, Johnson had 2.13, and Howard posted an average of 3.31 big runs per start. Though part of this has to do with run blocking schemes and game situation, it is still impressive to see Howard lead the top tier in this metric. The stat of 3.31 runs of 10+ yards is nothing to be waved away.

Perhaps one knock we can find in the numbers for this category is in terms of receiving yards. Unlike Bell and Johnson, Howard was not to known to be a prolific receiving back. And, although Howard’s receiving yards per start don’t stack up to those of Bell and Johnson, they are actually quite comparable to Elliott. In fact, fewer than 1.3 receiving yards per start actually separate the two players.

Player Efficiency - Per Attempt Stats

Now that we’ve looked at some per start comparisons, we can delve a little deeper and try to examine some measure of efficiency by getting into per attempts stats.

Again, there’s an easy place to start with this: rush yards per attempt. Going in the order of Bell, Johnson, Elliott, and Howard, these backs registered 4.86 yards per attempt on 261 attempts, 4.23 on 293, 5.07 on 322, and 5.21 on 252 attempts.

Not only did Howard lead all of these backs in this category, he also posted the highest mark of all running backs with over 250 carries. Like with most metrics, there are several reasons for this number to be skewed a bit, but posting such a high yard per carry number on over 250 attempts is impressive regardless.

To give Howard some more redemption in the passing game, we can look to both yards per reception and yards after the catch (YAC) per reception. The Chicago Bear posted a very respectable 10.3 yards per reception last season, coming in a yard behind the pack leader Zeke and two yards ahead of Bell. If we change the metric to YAC per reception, we actually see Howard jump to second place with 11.3. That’s two more YAC than David Johnson and three more than Le’Veon Bell. Howard recorded significantly fewer receptions overall than those two rushers, and his great YAC per reception shows play-making ability in a receiving role.

The last efficiency metric I want to look at is an Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) and Open Field Yards (OFY) comparison. These are metrics from Football Outsiders, and this is how they explain the relationship between the two: 

A team with a high ranking in Adjusted Line Yards but a low ranking in Open Field Yards is heavily dependent on its offensive line to make the running game work. A team with a low ranking in Adjusted Line Yards but a high ranking in Open Field Yards is heavily dependent on its running back breaking long runs to make the running game work. 

By comparing the ALY and OFY of a team, we can get a rough estimate of how much each team’s lead rusher did work without the help of his respective offensive line. So let’s take a look for the four backs we’ve been comparing thus far:

  1. Le’Veon Bell: The Pittsburgh Steelers’ line posted the second best ALY in the league while their OFY ranked just 25th. Though Bell only played in 75% of the Steelers’ games, the huge difference between the ALY and OFY indicate that the offensive line in Pittsburgh did a lot of work (which it did).

  2. David Johnson: Despite a generally negative look on the Arizona offensive line in 2016 (at least in my eyes), they actually had the seventh-best ALY. With an 11th-ranked OFY to go along with it, David Johnson seems to have a done a decent job in the open field, but perhaps not as well (relatively speaking of course) as his offensive line’s blocking.

  3. Ezekiel Elliott: To no one’s surprise, the Dallas offensive line was top-five in ALY in 2016. And while their eighth-ranked OFY was quite good, it did not quite measure up to their ALY ranking. Dallas’ offensive line seems to have done a lot in giving Elliott room to succeed.

  4. Jordan Howard: The Chicago Bears are the only team among the four looked at here who had an ALY rank lower than their OFY rank. However, that’s not to say the Chicago O-line didn’t do serious work in run-blocking. Their ALY rank was actually eighth in the league, above notably New England and Atlanta. What’s more impressive, however, is their OFY rank of fifth. Jordan Howard was truly potent beyond his line’s blocking.

Situation

The final set of data I want to analyze is the situations each of the running backs mentioned here were in while racking up yards. Being in the right situation can do wonders for a running back; just ask Emmitt Smith. 

Pressure Generated from Passing Game

First off, we can take a basic look at the passing offenses of each running back to see how much pressure was on the running game. The better the passing game, the easier it is to run (in general), because the passing game is putting pressure on the defense.

For Bell, the Pittsburgh passing attack ranked fifth in yards and fourth in scoring, allowing the running back to flourish as the passing game (that, to be fair, he was a large part of), and keeping defenses scared. When Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown come at you, as a defense, you’re kept up all night trying to figure out how to contain Brown.

In Arizona, though, Carson Palmer was not himself this season (or maybe he was), and the Cardinals were still ninth in air yardage and 11th in scoring. So, while the passing attack generated less pressure in Arizona than in Pittsburgh, a top-10 aerial offense is nothing to complain about. Again, yes, David Johnson had a lot to do with the passing game, but Larry Fitzgerald, J.J. Nelson, and John Brown are no slouches.


Moving to Dallas, we can see a lot of the yardage needed to score was actually provided by Ezekiel Elliott and the ground attack. Dallas ranked just 23rd in passing yards but second in rushing yards. However, at least the Dallas passing game was ranked 14th in scoring, generating a respectable amount of pressure for a dominant rushing game.

Unfortunately for Jordan Howard, he was “blessed” with the play of Matt Barkley, Brian Hoyer, and Jay Cutler, each of whom was able to record one win last season. Though the Bears were able to rank 14th in passing yardage (thank you garbage time), being in the bottom-10 in scoring through the air gave opposing defenses little-to-no pressure. Simply put, Howard was not in a great situation.

Defense-adjusted Yard Above Replacement (DYAR)

According to Football Outsiders, DYAR “gives the value of the performance on plays where this RB carried/caught the ball compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage.” Essentially, we’re getting a pretty good indication of how much value a running back adds given the situation in which he runs. 

Zeke led all backs in the league in this category, with Bell close behind in third. Howard ended up finishing in fifth with David Johnson a bit behind in ninth. We could really bump Howard up to fourth in my opinion because Mike Gillislee’s 101 carries is separating Howard from Le’Veon Bell. With this consideration, we can see that Howard holds up well with the top tier of running backs after taking rushing situations into account. 

Certainly playing from behind almost all of the time (the Bears were the fifth-worst team in game time while trailing) could have opened up the box and led to some garbage yardage for Howard. However, a strong DYAR relative to all of the league’s running backs including Elliott, Bell, and Johnson tempers my skepticism.

Give the Man Respect

Fantasy players will be the quickest ones to give Howard the respect he deserves, as he was the third-most owned player on championship teams for NFL.com. 

However, outside the fantasy context, Howard is often seen to be a second-tier back, not quite on the level of others. I think the stats tell the story quite well: Jordan Howard consistently competed with the top tier of running backs like Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Ezekiel Elliott. With all of these backs 25 years of age or younger, I’m excited to see the four continue to push each other until they retire. Jordan Howard, you the man.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

SQuiz
Where did Jordan Howard start his college career?
Created 2/22/17
  1. University of Texas A&M
  2. University of Florida
  3. University of Oklahoma
  4. University of Alabama at Birmingham

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