Forte approaches record-setting start

LONDON -- Digging his hands into a pair of sweatpants, Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte stared into the distance at the Oval Cricket Ground as the team gathered to stretch.

Almost reluctantly, he acknowledged with an uneasy grin what might be afoot. Should Forte gain 92 yards Sunday when the Bears face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley Stadium, he’ll become the first player -- at any position -- in seven years to reach 1,000 yards from scrimmage after just seven games.

“The stats are what they are,” Forte said. “I don’t really look into them too much. I just continue to play. When I go out onto the field, all that type of stuff [statistically] is good. But I’d rather continue to get wins to try to help us get to the playoffs.”

Fair enough, but surely the Bears might finally recognize Forte’s value if he reaches at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage going into next week’s bye. Former Rams great Marshall Faulk racked up 1,192 yards through the first seven games of the 2000 season, which ranks as the most since the 1970 NFL merger.

Tiki Barber and Priest Holmes reached 1,100 and 1,017 yards, respectively, through the first seven games of 2004, making them the last players to accomplish that feat.

Given his inability to land a lucrative extension with the team, it’s worth it to put into perspective the potential significance of Forte’s pending accomplishment, should it come to fruition. If Forte were to reach 1,000 yards one game before the halfway point of the season, it would put him on pace for more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and give him a chance to reach elite company.

Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson reached 2,006 yards rushing in 2009, and signed an extension in September that pays an average of more than $9 million per year. The season in which Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards, the running back had gained 961 total yards from scrimmage through the first seven games.

Through six this season, Forte has gained 908 yards, likely shattering the notion the running back’s numbers are a product of Mike Martz’s system. The majority of his receptions have come on check downs from a scrambling Jay Cutler, and it’s also worth noting Forte is running behind a struggling offensive line -- arguably one of the worst in the league. Forte ranks seventh in rushing (527 yards, 278 after contact), and has made defenders miss a total of 18 tackles.

Forte does his part in protection, too. During a 2010 season in which Cutler suffered a league-high 52 sacks, Forte was actually one of the quarterback’s best blockers. According to Pro Football Focus, Forte stayed in to protect on 140 snaps in 2010 (29.4 percent of passes) and allowed five pressures. By comparison, Maurice Jones-Drew allowed four pressures in 79 snaps. Johnson surrendered 10 pressures in 85 snaps, and Peterson gave up nine in 46 snaps.

In 2011, Forte has stayed in to block on 17 percent of the team’s passes, giving up no sacks and three pressures, and no quarterback hits.

Interestingly, it’s believed the team balked at paying Forte more than $6 million per year when the sides engaged in negotiations during the preseason. Prior to the start of the season, sources indicated that Forte was willing to accept a deal worth approximately $7.8 million per year -- remember that his backup Chester Taylor was paid $7 million last season. (That $7.8 million figure doesn’t qualify as top tier in terms of salaries for running backs, considering players like Adrian Peterson, Johnson, and D’Angelo Williams have signed richer deals.)

In fact, according to multiple sources, the Bears actually told Forte during a meeting they don’t think he’s elite which is why the running back has said on numerous occasions: “They don’t think I’m elite.”

But should Forte keep up his current pace, he’ll play himself into that “elite” category. He likely also won’t be willing to accept the deal he would have gladly signed before the start of the season. It would make perfect sense, too, because only two running backs -- Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig -- in NFL history have rushed for 1,000 yards and gained 1,000 yards receiving in a season. So assuming Forte maintained the pace, he’d likely join Faulk and Craig while becoming a serious Most Valuable Player candidate, All-Pro, and earn a spot in the Pro Bowl, which would significantly increase his value.

So wouldn’t it be wise for the Bears to try to strike a deal as soon as possible?

Forte tries to avoid the what-ifs regarding the current situation, while general manager maintains both sides “tried” to come to agreement on a new deal.

“I’m not worried about it,” Forte said.

Perhaps it's time the Bears start to worry.