The explosive passing aspects of an offense might put fans in the stands, but the Bears proved in 2009 that a successful ground game is what tacks victories onto a team’s record.
The Bears broke the 100-yard rushing mark in just seven games last season (winning five of those outings), making for a sub-.500 2009 campaign. So for all the hoopla concerning quarterback Jay Cutler, and the talented young receiving corps heading into training camp Friday in Bourbonnais, the truth of the matter is the team’s success on offense hinges largely on the production of running backs Matt Forte and free-agent acquisition Chester Taylor.
Two burning questions heading into camp concern whether the duo packs enough punch to revitalize a dead-legged ground attack that ranked 29th in 2009, in addition to how the club plans to divvy up the workload, which is likely to be significant, based on coach Lovie Smith’s plans for the Bears to maintain a run-first identity.
To do that, the Bears need to achieve a level of consistency at the position.
Forte, who followed a strong rookie year with an injury-riddled sophomore season, couldn’t provide that in 2009. In fact, three backups -- Garrett Wolfe, Kahlil Bell and the departed Adrian Peterson -- combined for a significantly higher yards-per-carry average (5.6) than Forte (3.6), who is expected to receive first crack at the starting job.
The Bears selected BYU all-time leading rusher Harvey Unga in the seventh round of the supplemental draft, with an eye on him as a bigger complement to Forte and Taylor. Unga, who is considered to possess impressive agility for a player his size (6-0, 244 pounds), will compete with Wolfe and Bell to assume the No. 3 running back role. It’s important to note that of the eight running backs picked in the supplemental draft’s history, four never played in the NFL. Only one running back ever selected in the supplemental draft -- Bobby Humphrey -- earned a spot in the Pro Bowl.
It’s likely the Bears’ initial plan is to split carries between Forte and Taylor, who signed a $12.5 million ($7 million guaranteed) contract to join the club in free agency. But at some point, a larger portion of the workload will likely be handed to either Forte or Taylor based on who has the hot hand.
Early in the offseason, Forte mentioned that he envisions in Martz’s system certain formations in which both running backs “can be on the field at the same time.” Both possess similar skill sets with their ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Forte is faster (he appears to have regained his rookie speed), and more elusive than Taylor. Taylor runs with more authority and appears to be more effective in pass protection than Forte.
Forte said he “was fine” with the Taylor signing during the offseason. But some in the organization believe the acquisition of Taylor has motivated Forte. So with Taylor looking to prove he’s worth the money the Bears paid in free agency, and Forte motivated to erase his disastrous 2009 campaign, the Bears should benefit significantly from the inherent competition created by the players’ respective situations.
Future Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk produced the bulk of his numbers playing in Martz’s offense with the St. Louis Rams. Martz and the Bears will need to coax from two players -- Forte and Taylor -- stats similar to Faulk’s (1,374-yard average from 1999-2002, in addition to averaging 881 receiving yards).
The Bears seem to think Forte and Taylor are skilled enough to pull it off. On paper, it appears possible too, given that Cutler -- paired with the club’s dangerous speed on the outside at receiver between Devin Hester and Johnny Knox -- should prevent opponents from loading the tackle box, which automatically opens up the running lanes.
Either way, it’s imperative this season for the Bears to regain consistency at the running back position. If Forte and Taylor falter, you can count on the rest of the offense tanking too, along with the Bears’ season.