CHICAGO -- When Bears running back Matt Forte ran for 23 yards in the second quarter Sunday, he accomplished something quite remarkable.
That was his second run of 20 or more yards in the game, or one more than he had all of last season. He added a third such run when he popped a 20-yard gain in the third quarter.
Forte tripled last year’s output of 20-plus-yard runs in just three quarters. Sure, he got bottled up in the second half, and the Bears lost 31-23 to the Green Bay Packers in the season opener, but we're starting from scratch here.
You remember last season, right?
Forte had 266 carries in 2014, one of the messiest, most unwatchable seasons in Bears history, which is quite full of garbage seasons, but his only gain of 20 or more yards on the ground was a 32-yard run against the Vikings on Nov. 16. That’s it. Needless to say, Forte, who still caught 102 passes last season, is pretty happy to not be in the Marc Trestman offense in a contract year.
On Sunday, Forte had 24 carries for 141 yards to go with five catches for 25 yards.
“It felt good,” Forte said of the Adam Gase offense’s commitment to the run. “It felt like that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Bears football is back!
Now the bad news: Bears football against the Packers is also back!
The offense had one touchdown, aside from a garbage-time score with 34 seconds left, and went 0-for-3 from the Packers’ 2-yard line on its first drive of the fourth quarter.
This game wasn’t a revelation or a breakthrough, but given the low, low expectations coming into the season, it had a feeling of, “Hey, we’re not a joke anymore.” Considering the Packers won both games last year by an aggregate score of 93-31, I can see where the optimism is coming from.
With head coach John Fox taking over and general manager Ryan Pace starting a rebuild of the foundering franchise, no one is expecting much from this team. In a city that bleeds orange and blue and is perennially disappointed on Sundays, it's fair for fans to be happy with a few hours of entertainment. Last season was that bad.
But this game also had plenty of negatives to be upset about.
Trailing 24-16 in the fourth quarter, Cutler threw three straight incompletions from the 2-yard line, and the Bears turned the ball over on downs. In that goal-line situation, Forte caught a 4-yard pass from the 6 but didn’t see the ball the next three plays.
“You’re not going to run against that front,” Cutler said. “We had some good play calls. We messed up a few things that will get corrected and give us better opportunities there.”
Forte gained 105 yards in the first half. He had only three carries in the fourth quarter.
In the second quarter, the Bears had their only touchdown drive in meaningful action. Forte had 10 carries for 62 yards in a 15-play, 80-yard scoring drive that took 7:11 of game action. The only other Bear with yards on the drive was Martellus Bennett, who caught a 4-yard pass from Cutler.
That was the drive that had a nullified field goal and touchdown because of penalties and a Forte drop that would’ve easily gone in for a touchdown. Forte was stunned when he didn’t make the catch, but he rebounded with a 1-yard touchdown run.
“I couldn’t believe I did that,” he said. “Coach Fox, he talked to me like, ‘It’s all right, it’s all right, just make up for it.’ So when I scored on the run, he was like, ‘You made up for it.’ That’s another thing playing in this game: Against a team like that, you can’t make those type of mistakes. I got to focus in on the ball better. I knew I was open and got a little too antsy about it.”
In the second half, the Packers' defense adjusted, and the Bears' passing game couldn’t take advantage.
Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers started giving the Bears some “Bear” looks, Cutler said, by stacking the box against the run and putting Clay Matthews on Forte in the passing game. The Bears will have to find some counter options to keep Forte productive on the ground. But they have to give him carries. No excuses. Last year, the Bears were 2-1 when he got 20 or more carries. That there were only three such games is an indictment of Trestman's failures.
"The sky's the limit for him [Forte]," Cutler said. "He does so many things well. He runs between the tackles, outside the tackles and catches the ball in space. He can block. It's just going to be up to us and the coaching staff to keep him fresh and not overdo him. Make sure we're giving him a spell from time to time."
Forte is going to get spelled by backups Jacquizz Rodgers and Jeremy Langford (they combined for eight carries and 48 yards), and they'll have to produce too. Because no one is counting on Cutler to save the day -- not anymore.
Several Bears players praised Cutler, who went 18-for-36 for 225 yards with a crucial interception in the fourth quarter. The Bears were on the Packers’ 29-yard line, still down eight points, when Matthews stepped in front of Cutler’s throw to Bennett and returned it to Bears' territory. It was a classic Cutler mistake, and it took the Packers four plays to score a touchdown and go up 31-16.
“As soon as I let it go, I knew we were in trouble,” Cutler said. “It was a good play by him.”
Experience served Cutler well in that regard. As a Bear, he now has 22 interceptions in 11 regular-season games against the Packers.
“Every game is personal,” Cutler said. “I feel like I let the offense down with that pick, but that being said, that’s one game, and we have a lot of football left to play.”
Cutler’s passer rating was 67.5 on Sunday. He had only one lower quarterback rating last season, a 55.8 in a 31-15 loss to New Orleans, the game before he was benched for a week.
But again, the Bears aren’t wrong to be a little optimistic. This game, the first in two entirely new systems, didn’t feel like a disaster. The defense held its own at times against Aaron Rodgers. The team's top three receivers, all of whom missed time in the preseason because of injury, need time to jell. Alshon Jeffery (five catches for 78 yards) looked pretty good as he works his way back from the calf injury that kept him out all preseason.
Forte liked the fight he saw from his team when the going got rough in the fourth.
“The mentality, which I was proud of, is nobody had that stupid look on their face like before when something would happen, and everyone would kind of say the game was lost already, when there’s time left," he said. "So I was glad we didn’t have that and kept fighting.”
The Bears, sans that collectively dopey look, marched down the field and scored a touchdown on Cutler’s 24-yard pass to Bennett with 34 seconds left. They didn't get the ensuing onside kick, but they went down swinging.
“There's always flashes,” Fox said. “You know, like in a prizefight, it’s like saying you feel good getting hit in the mouth. It doesn’t feel good. So there is a reaction when you get punched in the mouth. You know, it’s how long you let that reaction take over. I thought our team competed. What I meant by that is that we got hit in the mouth a few times, and we came back.”
If he stays healthy, Forte will have a Pro Bowl season in what could be his last season as a Bear. Few work harder at their craft than he does. He also wants to win now. That will mean heightened expectations besides playing hard in a loss.
“We’ve got to build from there,” Forte said. “I don’t think this is a rebuilding year. We need to continue to build what we’ve already started, not like rebuilding. We should expect to win games and be in the playoffs.”
The playoffs are a long way from here, but at least they know there's something to build on.