The 2016 season was winding down when it was pointed out to Xavien Howard that he at least had an opportunity to start almost every game he was healthy enough to play.
“Is that surprising to you?” Howard said.
Howard was laying his cards on the table. He was just a rookie, in a secondary with Byron Maxwell, a veteran; Tony Lippett, the Dolphins’ interception leader that season; and Bobby McCain, who had a year’s experience that Howard did not.
One thing Howard did have: a bum knee. Didn’t matter. Howard thought — no, knew — he deserved to be on the field, and starting, and even as a 23-year-old, he was going to let it be known the belief he had in himself.
This year, Howard got on such a roll terrorizing quarterbacks that he was not only intercepting passes, but elbowing his way into the conversation over NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Thirteen games in, he was leading the NFL with nine interceptions and on the cusp of becoming the first player in 13 years with double digit interceptions. He’s grabbing them at a higher rate than all-timers such as Deion Sanders, Charles Woodson and Ronnie Lott.
Is that surprising to you?
If you’ve been paying even scant attention, of course not. Howard didn’t pad his stats with, say, three interceptions against an ice-cold quarterback. Rather, he has played at a consistent, high level. When his streak of four games with an interception ended, he simply started another streak, with five. Russell Wilson thought he could evade Howard’s itchy fingers. He learned otherwise. Patrick Mahomes? He’s woke. Underthrow it an inch, Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, and you better be ready to send out your defense.
“It’s a great feeling to be sitting on the bench looking at the tablet, and somebody handing you your helmet and saying, ‘Hey, we’re back up. X got another interception,’ ” quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “It’s unbelievable. He has always got his hands on the ball.”
X got another one. That’s what Howard’s defensive teammates are saying, too. Sort of.
“It’s funny, you can’t see my facial expression in the helmet but I’m like, ‘This freaking guy again?’ ” said Howard’s counterpart at the other cornerback spot, Byron Jones.
A better question is why quarterbacks insist on pressing their luck.
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