NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott has taken the league by storm in his rookie season. The No. 4 overall pick has 327 more rushing yards than anyone else in football, has gone over the 100-yard mark a league-high seven times and ranks third in the NFL with 14 touchdowns.
When you've got numbers like that and you're leading a 12-2 Dallas Cowboys team on a playoff run, you're going to be the toast of the football world.
To nobody's surprise, ESPN.com's Darren Rovell reported in November that between April 1 and Oct. 31, the Ohio State product had the best-selling football jersey in America.
But it might surprise you to find out that on a per-carry basis, Elliott has not been the most productive qualified rookie back in football this season.
See, while Zeke is averaging 5.003 yards per rushing attempt (ranking fourth among backs with at least 100 carries), a fellow named Jordan Howard ranks one spot ahead of him with a yards-per-attempt average of 5.019.
|NFL yards-per-attempt leaders (minimum 100 carries)|
|1. LeSean McCoy||205||1,129||5.51|
|2. Mark Ingram||167||850||5.09|
|3. Jordan Howard||211||1,059||5.02|
|4. Ezekiel Elliott||310||1,551||5.00|
|5. Le'Veon Bell||241||1,146||4.76|
Unfamiliar with Howard? If you don't live in the Chicago area or play fantasy football, that's forgivable. His Chicago Bears are not having a good season, obscuring the fact the 22-year-old ranks eighth in the league in rushing.
Howard played just 60 snaps during the first three weeks of the season, per Pro Football Focus, but only Elliott and Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers have more rushing yards since Week 4. And by accumulating 90 or more yards from scrimmage in each of his last seven contests, he's smashed through that famously invisible rookie wall.
But because the Bears aren't playing games that matter and Howard didn't enter the league as a hot prospect, nobody's talking about him.
And that's fine, because Howard is used to being overlooked.
Peaks and valleys
Howard's mother, Flora Williams, likes to say her son was born a star, but the rest of the world didn't discover that until it was almost too late.
That's not to say he wasn't a standout athlete growing up in the Birmingham, Alabama, suburb of Gardendale (population 13,900), but the problem was Howard was rarely in the right place at the right time. As a result, valleys low-lighted his football life as often as peaks highlighted it.
Peak: He was a dominant youth football running back, linebacker and safety. He was the fastest kid on the field, according to youth football coach and longtime mentor John Porter, and one of the biggest to boot.
Valley: He started his high school career at Shades Valley High in nearby Irondale, trapped in a wishbone offense that didn't allow him to get the most out of his abilities as a running back. Howard and his mom moved so that he could transfer to Gardendale, and he excelled in a more suitable role, but Porter believes that late start kept him under the radar: "He just wasn't getting that exposure his freshman and sophomore year."
Peak: Howard did shine as a junior at Gardendale.
Valley: A knee injury cost him the ability to attend recruiting camps the summer prior to his senior season.
Peak: He rebounded by rushing for 1,388 yards and 21 touchdowns in 10 games as a senior, with his family working overtime to find him scholarship opportunities. Williams remembers overnighting tapes to recruiters and spending hours calling and emailing schools.
Valley: Only his hometown college—the University of Alabama at Birmingham—made an offer. "It was kind of disappointing because it's always good to have options," Howard said, "but at the end of the day, I was grateful. They wanted me to attend camp the previous summer, and I couldn't because of my injury. So I was glad they didn't pull my offer."
Peak: The path from UAB to the NFL was always far from clear, but it looked as though he'd have a shot after rushing for 1,587 yards and 13 touchdowns while earning first-team All-Conference USA honors as a sophomore.
Valley: Howard was again in the wrong place at the wrong time at the conclusion of that campaign, when UAB suddenly shut down its football program. "At first I didn't really want to talk to anybody or think about going to a new school," he said, "but I had to put my emotions aside and try to focus on my next step."
Peak: The silver lining came that winter when major programs heavily recruited Howard and several of his teammates while looking for players with Division I experience who wouldn't have to sit out a year after transferring.
Looking for a back to replace superstar Tevin Coleman, Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough led the charge for Howard, showing up at his doorstep in Gardendale. McCullough gained Howard's trust and won over Williams, and a few meetings later the 20-year-old was a Hoosier.
"I recruited him hard," McCullough said, "and I didn't get the impression he believed he'd be gone in one year."
But when he rushed for 145-plus yards in four consecutive games to start the 2015 season, it became apparent to McCullough that Howard would be one-and-done in Bloomington.
"Midway through the season, I told him I thought his play was on par with some of the better backs I've seen in terms of how he graded out in games," McCullough said.
A 238-yard, two-touchdown performance against Michigan in November was the icing on the cake. Howard finished the season with a 6.2 yards-per-attempt average and looked like a Day 2 draft pick. NFL.com projected he'd be selected in Round 2 or 3, while Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had him going 63rd overall.
Which brings us to one more valley.
Howard slid all the way to the fifth round before the Bears selected him with the 150th overall pick. Nine other backs came off the board before he did, which baffled experts, friends, family members, coaches and Howard himself.
"I was definitely expecting to go somewhere between the second and fourth round," he said. "I don't really know why I dropped, but I'm glad it happened because I feel like this is the spot for me."
Indeed, he's found another peak as a rookie. He has 1,059 rushing yards. Save for Elliott, not one of the backs selected ahead of him has half that many.
|Rookie rushing leaders|
|1. Ezekiel Elliott||4th||1,551|
|2. Jordan Howard||150th||1,059|
|3. Robert Kelley||Undrafted||595|
|4. Devontae Booker||136th||528|
|5. Jalen Richard||Undrafted||422|
It's possible NFL teams were scared off by Howard's unusual college resume, or the fact he had that knee injury in high school and missed four games at Indiana due to knee and ankle injuries. But according to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, an unnamed AFC running backs coach called Howard "the best pure running back" in that draft, so the wait had to hurt.
"It definitely inspires me that teams [passed] and I had to wait for so long," Howard said, "but I always feel like the underdog, so that just adds a little more to it."
"Don't think he doesn't carry that chip on his shoulder," Porter added. "He's ultracompetitive, and he took being drafted in the fifth round pretty hard, but he's using that as fuel."
It's daddy. Wishing you a happy day. And yes, to me, you are the G.O.A.T. Win, lose or draw.
That's the text from a note written for a young Jordan Howard by Dr. Reginald Howard, a kindhearted, soft-spoken dentist known as "Doc."
"His dad knew from the start," Williams said, "that Jordan was special. He told me that long before he met me, he knew that he would have a son and his name would be Jordan. So we would joke that I was just a surrogate for him."
Doc took Jordan to all of his youth football games and practices. As Porter recalls, he'd often park his car at the top of a hill overlooking the field, analyzing his son's play with a quality perspective. Afterward, he and Porter would discuss Jordan's performance.
Doc was the ultimate football dad, but he never got to see Jordan achieve their shared dream. The truth is, he watched so many of those games and practices from the car because he was too sick to stand on the sideline.
On Jan. 31, 2007, when Jordan was 12 years old, Reginald "Doc" Howard died after living with pulmonary fibrosis for nine years.
"No matter how bad he was feeling, he would always be there," Jordan recalled. "We'd watch football and talk about making the NFL. He was basically my best friend."
By my conservative estimate, Howard has played upward of 80 football games since his father died, and in every one of them, he's worn the same shirt under his jersey and pads.
The T-shirt, now faded and tattered, contains a photo of his smiling late father, along with these words: In memory of my Dad, "Doc" Reginald Howard.
"I definitely feel like he's with me when I put the shirt on," Jordan said.
So overlook Jordan Howard all you want. He isn't doing this for you.
"For a lot of kids, that's hard to overcome," Porter said. "He carried it with him, but he never used it as a crutch. He always used it for motivation, to make his dad proud. Because his dad believed in him at a young age. He never had to fight for his dad's approval; he already had it. Jordan had that confidence, and he didn't want to let his dad down."
Nine years after his father's death, Howard fulfilled their shared dream when the Bears drafted him in April. His mom believes it's far from a coincidence that Jordan's new team plays in the same city that is home to the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation. Her son is already involved, and when the league allowed players to wear custom cleats for causes of their choice earlier this month, Jordan laced up in these:
Jordan Howard @JHowardx24
Excited to wear these cleats for #MyCauseMyCleats during week 13 to represent my dad and the @PFFORG #Cleathead @adidasFballUS https://t.co/FBxfgEtnV311/29/2016, 6:57:11 PM
The other rookie sensation
Bears at Cowboys, Sept. 25, 2016. Elliott's coming-out party for the Cowboys. The No. 4 overall pick amasses 51 yards in the first quarter, with Dallas jumping out to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Few realize that the man who shared All-Big Ten running back honors with Elliott in 2015 is active for the opposing team. Howard doesn't receive his first carry of the night until Chicago is down by three scores in the second quarter.
It's just the fourth rushing attempt of his career.
Howard takes a stretch handoff from Bears quarterback Brian Hoyer, and it initially looks like he'll try to rely on his speed to bounce outside. But a large hole opens up between the right guard and right tackle, so he cuts to his left and darts north-south for a quicker-than-many-probably-expected 36-yard gain.
Elliott wound up with 160 yards from scrimmage that Sunday evening, but Howard discreetly broke out with 92 yards of his own in a 31-17 loss.
His yards didn't come as easy as Elliott's, but watch the game tape, and you'll notice that Howard never stops aggressively hitting holes between the tackles.
"That was one of the things we needed to work on with Jordan," said Porter, referring to Howard's youth football days. "I used to make him go multiple games without even running a wide play, just to help with his vision and get him used to reading and cutting off blocks."
That was instilled years ago in an athlete who says he prefers to initiate contact and knows his superior speed is less of an advantage than his 6'1", 222-pound size at the professional level. Porter and Doc didn't let Jordan rely on his speed way back then, and it stuck.
His first high school touchdown came on a run right up the middle, which was a point of pride for Howard. He sent the clip to Porter, who was quick to mention that "Jordan's dad played a big part in helping him understand what he had to do to get better on a daily basis."
According to Pro Football Focus, Howard is averaging 5.5 yards per carry when running between the tackles this season.
He's been through so much, but we're seeing fruit born from the seeds planted years ago by Porter and Doc.
"I still try to take on defenders," Howard said. "I'd much rather deliver the hit than take the hit."
Jeremy Langford was Chicago's starting running back for that Week 3 game against Dallas, but he suffered an ankle injury that night. Howard took over, ran for 111 yards in his first NFL start the following week and never looked back.
"This is unexpected," he admitted. "I definitely knew I could do this, but I didn't think I'd have the opportunity to produce right away at this level."
He knows he has work to do—no rookie has mastered the art of blocking, and according to PFF, he leads all backs with seven dropped passes—but an ability to analyze his weaknesses was something that impressed McCullough about Howard during the recruitment process.
"He's a guy who's never satisfied, who's continually growing and critiquing himself," McCullough said. "He'll never get the big head, and he'll just keep on coming. Because he knows he'll have to keep proving himself."
Howard is well-practiced in the art of proving himself. He had to do it after missing the most important summer of his football life in high school, and then after being neglected by colleges. He had to prove himself to those who questioned whether he could stay healthy, to those at Indiana who wondered why he came from a small-potatoes program and to everyone who decided against drafting him in April.
Meanwhile, that worn-out T-shirt continues to remind him that in the eyes of the man whose approval he probably seeks the most, he'll always be the greatest of all time—win, lose or draw.
"It's bittersweet that his father can't be here to watch him," Williams said, "because he was the guy who just really knew before anybody else who this kid was."
But she believes Howard's father is watching, and that concept is sublime when you imagine Dr. Reginald "Doc" Howard looking down on his son's games the way he did from the car on that hill. In Doc's eyes, Jordan Howard isn't that other rookie sensation. He's the only rookie sensation.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.