Bears positional analysis: Running backs
Bears positional analysis: Running backs
Fifth in a 10-part series
General manager Jerry Angelo has an interesting history when it comes to Chicago Bears running backs.
It's hard to argue with the idea that Matt Forte has been the best offensive player selected in the nine drafts Angelo has overseen since being hired, with Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton probably second (before you argue for Greg Olsen, consider that Orton has 61 career starts and has emerged as at least a middle-of-the-road performer at a position the Bears couldn't solve for the longest time)..
But this isn't about quarterbacks and it certainly isn't about Orton. Forte has proven to be a durable performer as he hasn't missed a game in three seasons and he's one of the best all-around backs in the league, an ideal fit for Mike Martz's scheme.
In the 2010 season, only five backs in the NFL had 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving:
Arian Foster, Houston (1,616 yards rushing, 604 yards receiving, 2,220 combined yards).
Ray Rice, Baltimore (1,220, 556, 1,776).
LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia (1,080, 592, 1,672).
Darren McFadden, Oakland (1,157, 507, 1,664).
Matt Forte, Bears (1,069, 547, 1,616).
Forte is fifth in the league in yards from scrimmage since 2008, his rookie season, trailing only Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Steven Jackson. What made a difference for him this season -- he averaged a career-high 4.5 yards per carry -- was explosive plays, the kind that he missed last season. Forte had nine carries of 20 or more yards and two over 60. Those big ones are what backs have to break to post the kind of statistics the best have on an annual basis.
One thing we were remiss in Wednesday in reviewing the offensive line was pointing out that the run blocking did improve this season under new line coach Mike Tice. It has been popular -- and easy at times -- to beat up on the line, but when Forte bounced back like he did from a sub-par 2009 season, the line deserves credit. Certainly he was one of the first to praise the line on a weekly basis.
Roll call: Kahlil Bell, Matt Forte, Chester Taylor, Harvey Unga, Garrett Wolfe.
2010 overview: As quickly as the Bears moved to sign Julius Peppers, they also worked to sign Chester Taylor after the veteran had spent four seasons in Minnesota, the final three backing up Peterson. Forte was coming off a difficult 2009 season that was marred by knee and hamstring issues, and the coaching staff identified Taylor as a match for Mike Martz's offense. He is skilled as a receiver out of the backfield and handles blitz pickup assignments well, so the Bears made a hard push for Taylor, signing him to a front-loaded $12.5 million, four-year contract. Taylor earned $7 million in the uncapped 2010 season, meaning he won't have an inflated contract moving forward with the expected return of a salary cap.
Did the Bears overpay for Taylor? No question. But it was necessary to get him away from the Vikings, who wanted to re-sign him, and it's the nature of free agency. It was important that the Bears finally get a back to share some of the load with Forte, who logged more snaps in 2008 and 2009 than any back in the league. They'd struggled to find a complementary player in the past and Taylor was viewed as more than that.
So, the addition of Taylor set up what looked to be a quality 1-2 punch and based on Forte's 2009 season and Taylor's career body of work, it looked like it would be a good battle for the starting job. That never happened. Forte, fully healthy for the first time since his rookie season, never opened the door for Taylor. In fact, Angelo talked about the arrival of Taylor being a factor in Forte's strong season. Maybe he didn't need a veteran presence to push him, but it certainly helped.
Forte was strong in the second half of the season when Martz finally committed to the run and the Bears proved capable of having success on the ground against some of the better run defenses in the league. The balance was instrumental in quarterback Jay Cutler having some good games. Forte averaged 4.9 yards per carry over the final nine games and it was really as well as the team has run the ball during the Angelo era.
Taylor didn't get much in the way of playing time at the outset of the season. He received only 19 carries through the first four games and backs will tell you they need more carries to get in a groove and get a feel for not only their blockers but what the defense is doing. He wound up getting 10 carries or more in only five games and at the midway point he was declared the short-yardage back. He wound up scoring three touchdowns but statistically the season was a disaster for Taylor. He gained only 267 yards on 112 carries, averaging a meager 2.38 yards per carry. Statistically, it's one of the worst seasons in the history of the NFL for a back with a minimum of 100 carries, as Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com noted. According to Pro-FootballReference.com, only three backs in the history of the game had a worse YPC with a minimum of 100 carries and two of them played before 1954. Taylor's was the worst in the last 44 seasons. It's not all Taylor's fault, not close, but the Bears were only 11 for 23 on third-and-1 and that 48 percent conversion percentage must be improved next year.
Garrett Wolfe received only four carries in mop-up time of the Dec. 20 victory at Minnesota but played a prominent role on special teams again. He was second on the team with 12 solo tackles and tied for second with 18 total tackles. Kahlil Bell was an insurance policy that wasn't needed. He was inactive for all 16 games, a combination of the fact that the Bears stayed exceptionally healthy and he wasn't good enough on special teams to crack the game day 45-man roster. Harvey Unga faced an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster as an addition in the supplemental draft and the Bears found a convenient way to redshirt him with a hamstring pull in training camp.
Free agency/draft priority: Low. Sure, the Bears would be well served if they could find a nice short-yardage back who could be an asset on special teams, but that's easier said than done. They're certainly not going to be spending money at the position unless they're investing in Forte.
Looking ahead: A contract extension for Forte could be in the works and he and his agent Adisa Bakari are certainly going to be looking for one after Forte earned $470,000 while Taylor cashed $7 million. Forte is entering the final year of his contract. Before the Bears do anything when it comes to a contract for their players, they will likely wait to see what happens with a new collective bargaining agreement. It wouldn't make a sense to cut a deal now when you don't know the rules and the financial implications moving forward.
Running back is probably the most difficult position for players to get a second contract, and this is where Angelo's history with Bears running backs is interesting. Everyone wants a back with low mileage and no one wants to invest big bucks in a back when they can find a cheaper model with less wear and tear in the draft. Director of personnel Tim Ruskell probably will admit one of the mistakes he made when he was general manager of the Seattle Seahawks was giving a huge contract to MVP Shaun Alexander and watching him fizzle out in two seasons.
What do you pay a running back that has given you three good years of service? As much as the player feels he's being rewarded for past performance, the team believes it's paying for future services. It's a delicate balance and it's one Angelo hasn't dealt with here. He inherited Anthony Thomas. He picked Thomas Jones up off the scrap heap for cheap. He drafted Cedric Benson. He drafted Forte. He overpaid Taylor. Angelo and the Bears haven't been down this path of rewarding their own back. In fact, when Jones wanted to be rewarded after three strong seasons, he was traded to the New York Jets.
Some teams do all they can to manufacture players for the position. Look at the New England Patriots. Sure, Mike Shanahan drafted Clinton Portis once upon a time, but he was the 51st overall pick in 2002. Forte was 44th overall in 2008. The Green Bay Packers haven't gone out of their way to fill the position very often. There is no question Forte deserves a raise. It's the right thing to do and the players in the locker room will echo that thought. But at what cost? That's the question Angelo must answer.
Bottom line: Forte should be a key element in Martz's offense again. Taylor will be in a position where he needs to perform better or else. Look for the Bears to try to work Unga into the mix. Wolfe would be nice, but tough decisions face the team and he's an unrestricted free agent. Plus, the Bears would look to Wolfe as a special teams performer and there's no doubt he'd like to find a team interested in developing him as a role player on offense.