Bears' Jordan Howard turned Week 1 disappointment into Pro Bowl berth

It's almost unfathomable to consider, especially while the ink still is drying on Jordan Howard's name in the Bears record book.

Think back to Week 1 and the Bears' 24-13 loss to the Texans. They ran 56 plays on offense that day, including 18 handoffs. There were 28 special teams snaps.

Howard stayed on the sideline for every single one.

Four months and 1,313 rushing yards later, Howard was named to the Pro Bowl as an alternate Wednesday, recognition for a historic rookie season that was especially remarkable because he began it as a healthy scratch.

As Howard tried to remain engaged on the NRG Stadium sideline that afternoon, the Pro Bowl was an impossibility.

"I was just thinking that I was going to do anything I could to get on the field, whether it was special teams or whatever," he recalled Wednesday during a teleconference with reporters. "I was just going to give my hardest. It was discouraging, but it was also motivating."

It was the first time since Howard's freshman season at the University of Alabama-Birmingham he did not play in a game for which he was healthy. By Week 4, though, injuries to Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey catapulted him to the starter's role, and he ran away with it.

Howard's exceptional vision and determined, physical running style soon became the most encouraging component of an otherwise lost season. He set the franchise rookie rushing record on 64 fewer carries than Matt Forte had in 2008 when he rushed for 1,238 yards.

That was rewarded with a Pro Bowl berth Wednesday when Cardinals running back David Johnson withdrew because of the left knee injury he suffered in the season finale. Howard became the fifth Bears rookie running back to make the Pro Bowl, joining Frank Maznicki (1942), John Dottley (1951), Rick Casares (1955) and Gale Sayers (1965).

It's the first all-star or showcase game Howard has been selected to at any level. He was first-team all-Big Ten as a junior at Indiana in 2015, but when he starred at Gardendale High School in Birmingham, he was passed over for the state all-star game.

"I just brushed it off and put my head down and kept working," Howard said. "My hard work is paying off now, so I'm just very grateful for that."

The Bears are also. As a fifth-round selection, Howard turned out to be one of the top steals of last April's draft. He fell to the third day because he lacked elite physical traits, but being overlooked has been a theme of his career. He simply has managed to be productive at every level.

Howard averaged 5.2 yards per carry as a rookie, better than NFL rushing leader and rookie-of-the-year favorite Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys. Howard led the Bears with six touchdowns.

Now he will represent the team Jan. 29 in Orlando, Fla. In the meantime, he still is trying to choose what to buy his offensive linemen as a thank you for this season. It turns out he's not as decisive in a store as he is in the backfield.

Does his Pro Bowl berth up the ante on the gift?

"I don't think, necessarily," he said. "But I definitely want to get them something that they'll like, so that's why it's a hard time trying to find something to pick for them."

rcampbell@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @Rich_Campbell

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