The Chicago Bears -- the NFL franchise forever associated with the T-formation and the legendary Walter Payton -- had to face an ugly truth last season.
The Bears’ rushing attack, once the hallmark of the organization, had morphed into a non-existent entity.
Chicago finished its underwhelming centennial season ranked 27th in rushing yards per game (91.1), 29th in yards per rush (3.69), T-20th in rushing attempts (395) and 31st in impact running plays of 15-plus yards (9), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Bears head coach and offensive playcaller Matt Nagy’s emotions on the subject ranged from frustrated to incredulous.
“I know we need to run the ball more. I’m not an idiot,” Nagy remarked after the Bears ran the ball a franchise record-low seven times in a blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 7.
The Bears used the first month of the offseason to try to address the shortcomings. Nagy made changes to the offensive coaching staff and hired veteran assistants Bill Lazor (offensive coordinator) and Juan Castillo (offensive line), both of whom have ample input in the run game.
Chicago mostly kept the status quo on the offensive line and in the backfield -- save for Germain Ifedi taking over right guard and Patterson transitioning to more of a full-time running back role. Instead of a wholesale personnel makeover, the Bears felt they could attain the desired results in 2020 with new coaches (and their visions) and a renewed determination to establish the run game.
“I do feel really good [about the run game],” Nagy said on a Zoom call this week. “I think that is one of the things in training here we’ve been able to focus on and do pretty well. We add some things here or there, and I think that coach Castillo and [assistant offensive line coach] Donovan Raiola and the O-line has accepted that and it feels good. Now, I don’t know, again, just like a lot of things until we get that first game ... But right now, I just appreciate their effort and their willingness to try to really get after it in practice.”
Lazor said the run game must be a coordinated effort in order to succeed.
“I think the key is that you have everyone understanding this is our philosophy of how we’re going to run the ball,” Lazor said. “This is what’s important to us. This is how your technique has to match it and how we coordinate everyone together with the calls, with the timing, with the formations.”
The summer has not been all smooth sailing. Starting running back David Montgomery suffered a groin injury in a non-contact drill on Aug. 26 and is officially listed as week-to-week. Montgomery’s absence puts more pressure on backfield mates Patterson, Tarik Cohen and Ryan Nall, and the entire offensive line.
And the Bears remain embroiled in a quarterback controversy between incumbent Mitchell Trubisky and challenger Nick Foles. Neither quarterback exactly lit the world on fire in the padded practices open to the media. Under no circumstances can Chicago expect to pass its way to a division championship. That places more pressure on the run game to click.
“In this game, you want to be able to be balanced, but yet maybe there’s some games you run the ball a little bit more because of the scheme you're facing,” Nagy said. “Or maybe it’s a particular formation or personnel. There are matchups involved. Some games it may be totally different. So that’s predicated based on the team you’re playing.
“So what is your identity as a team? Once you figure that out, then what’s the rest of the team? And how does it work together? Your general question about running the ball, that’s stating the obvious, that we need to be a lot better with that. I hope that’s what we can do.”