Bears Analysis; The RB's, What's Ahead for Forte, Barber and Bell.......
Bears analysis: What's in future for Forte?
- Should the Bears put more emphasis on the running game in 2012?
- Yes. Matt Forte is an elite back, should be focal point of offense.
- No. NFL is a passing league, give Jay Cutler more weapons.
By Brad Biggs, Tribune reporter 9:23 a.m. CST, January 11, 2012
Third in a 10-part series
A sprained MCL was the only thing that prevented Matt Forte from completing what would have been the finest season for a Chicago Bears running back since the days of Walter Payton.
Forte, who had a breakout season in 2010 in Mike Martz’s system, took it to the next level. He was leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage at the time of the injury in the Dec. 4 game vs. Kansas City, a setback that forced him to miss the final four regular-season games.
To put it in perspective, Forte had 1,487 yards from scrimmage in 12 games, just 129 yards behind his output from 2010. Had he maintained his average over the final four games, he would have finished with 1,983 yards, which would have ranked fifth in club history. Payton holds the top seven spots in franchise history with his best of 2,121 yards coming in 1977.
Big plays were the key for not only Forte but the offense. He had 12 rushes of 20 yards or more and five receptions. That’s what was missing in his game earlier in his career: the big chunks that would prop up his averages. The Bears did well running on the perimeter and that helped Forte have an average of 4.9 yards per carry -- a yard better than his average through the first two years of his career and a half-yard better than the previous season. He dedicated himself to speed training and showed up for training camp chiseled. All the hard work paid off.
The Bears swapped out an overpaid veteran backup in Chester Taylor for a less overpaid veteran backup in Marion Barber. Added into the mix was Kahlil Bell, who isn’t quite as good as former No. 3 back Garrett Wolfe was on special teams but offers more value on offense. The interesting move was the return of the fullback after a season without one. In the absence of blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, the Bears added a fullback the week before the season started by poaching Tyler Clutts off the practice squad of the Cleveland Browns.
Roll call: Matt Forte (unrestricted free agent), Marion Barber (signed through 2012), Kahlil Bell (restricted free agent), Armando Allen (signed through 2013), Tyler Clutts (signed through 2013), Harvey Unga (signed through 2014).
2011 review: Training camp opened with a clear focus on the contract situation of Forte. His agent Adisa Bakari visited training camp and met with club officials, including team president Ted Phillips, but the sides couldn’t find any common ground on a long-term extension. The Bears hoped an angry Forte would be a productive Forte and that turned out to be the case even if it took Martz a little while to get into the groove with the running game again.
Forte had only 35 carries through the first three games, and nine in a Week 3 loss to the Green Bay Packers, forcing an early look at why Martz was ignoring the run again, especially after an offseason in which subtle roster moves had been made, making it clear the Bears identified themselves as a running team. But Forte broke loose in Week 4 with a 205-yard game against the Carolina Panthers, tying him with Payton and Gale Sayers for second best day in club history. That was the start of a seven-game stretch where Forte averaged 21.6 carries per game and the first of four 100-yard games in a span of five. The ground game really got rolling as the Bears headed into a five-game winning streak.
Clutts’ addition made a difference as Forte has always been more productive in two-back sets. While we wouldn’t compare Barber or Bell to Forte, it was impressive to see the ground game continue to produce after Forte went out. Barber and Bell both had 100-yard games and the Bears were one of only three teams in the league to have three backs with 100-yard games. That is a testament to the scheme Martz was using and the run-blocking ability of the offensive line.
Barber was a better complement to Forte than Taylor the year before and not just because he performed better than Taylor, who walked away with $7 million after averaging less than 2.4 yards per carry in 2010. Barber is a powerful runner between the tackles while Taylor, in his prime, had skills that more closely mirrored Forte. But given a chance to carry the load, Barber also showed a tendency to make mental mistakes. He was responsible for an illegal formation penalty that erased a touchdown in the 10-3 loss to the Chiefs at Soldier Field. The next week, he ran out of bounds with the Bears working to run out the clock in the closing minutes, and then he fumbled in overtime.
The hard-running Bell took over and excelled. He has a violent style of running that might make it hard to stay healthy in the long run and while he did well, he also fumbled three times in one five-quarters stretch. The Bears also tested out Allen at the end and he’s an intriguing guy. If he can prove to be a valuable special teams player, he could be an upgrade as a third running back.
Free agency/draft priority: Forte is the biggest free agent for the Bears and you have to imagine Bakari is looking forward to the opportunity to negotiate with a new general manager, but the budget is set from above and it might not change too much. If Forte can’t get a long-term deal, the Bears are certain to place the franchise tag on him. Barber is signed through next season but at $1.9 million, and after a mixed season of production, it would not be surprising if he is cut loose. The bigger decision could be what to do with Bell, who will be restricted. The low tender for RFA’s in 2011 was $1.2 million. Do the Bears want to invest that kind of money in Bell or potentially work to sign him to a multi-year deal? The coaching staff showed no hesitation promoting him over Barber into the No. 2 role at the end of the season and this is a conversation that probably will take place once the new GM is in place. Maybe the Bears will look to add a late-round pick at the position but it’s not a pressing need.
Looking ahead: Forte is a high-mileage back who has proven to be durable when you consider he started 61 consecutive games before the MCL sprain, an injury that did not require surgery. He’s had 1,237 touches over the last four seasons when you combine rushes and receptions. Add in his senior season at Tulane and in five seasons he’s had 1,630 touches -- an average of 326 per year. He’s only gotten better and remains in is prime and there is no reason to believe he’ll slow down in 2012. At least publicly, Forte said he wanted Martz to return. Why not? His career went to the next level in the last two seasons. But the promotion of offensive line coach Mike Tice might be the next-best thing. Tice won’t lose sight of the running game and that will benefit Forte, especially if he is playing under a one-year deal again.
Bottom line: The Bears need to develop the offense around quarterback Jay Cutler,but it’s hard to imagine Tice straying from a run-first approach.