There cannot be a player on offense who is more excited about the new Chicago Bears coaching staff than Matt Forte.
Forte always has considered himself a dual threat out of the backfield and new coach Marc Trestman has a proven track record for making backs an integral part of the passing game. He has done it in the NFL with players such as Charlie Garner, who caught 91 passes for 941 yards in 2002 for the Raiders, and more recently in Canada where Montreal Alouettes running back Brandon Whitaker caught 121 balls over the previous two seasons.
General manager Phil Emery made reference to Forte’s decreased production last season after signing the 2011 Pro Bowl performer to a $30.4 million, four-year contract in July.
“I am going to be frank,” Emery said last month. “I was excited about his signing because a big part of that is him as a pass receiver. For whatever reason, whether it was protection or whether it was utilization or whether it was catching, we didn’t utilize Matt or he didn’t have the opportunity to be fully utilized.”
Forte caught 44 passes in 15 games in 2012 after catching 52 in 12 games in 2011. There was an even bigger change in how he was used. Former offensive coordinator Mike Martz got Forte involved in patterns more and he averaged 9.4 yards per catch in 2011 and a career-high 10.7 in 2010.
Last season, with play-caller Mike Tice keeping Forte into block some, he made more plays as a check-down target and his average dipped to 7.7, the lowest figure since his rookie season.
Now, Forte could be one of the more productive running backs in the NFL in catches. It will be necessary if the team cannot make significant improvements at tight end.
Roll call: Matt Forte (signed through 2015), Michael Bush (signed through 2015), Armando Allen (exclusive rights free agent), Kahlil Bell (unrestricted free agent), Harvey Unga (signed through 2013), FB Evan Rodriguez (signed through 2015).
2012 season review: Forte injured his right ankle three times during the season but missed only one game, the Week 3 meeting with the Rams. It was a testament to the shape he keeps himself in and his steadfast approach to rehabilitation. Forte’s 1,094 rushing yards came quietly — he had only three 100-yard games — but that is the second-highest total he has had in a single season. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry, a half-yard off the career figure he had in 2011. The difference? Explosive runs. Forte had 12 carries of 20 yards or more in ’11 and four of 40-plus yards. He had only six runs of 20 yards this past season and one more than 40 — a 46-yard carry in the Nov. 4 victory at Tennessee.
Tice never forgot Forte altogether like Martz sometimes did but he also didn’t grind Forte too much like former play-caller Ron Turner did in 2008 when Forte had 316 carries as a rookie. Forte had 248 carries, splitting the workload primarily with newcomer Michael Bush. Forte remained best on the edges and wasn’t an ideal fit for what Tice sought because he too often danced instead of hitting a hole. That’s nothing new with him as a runner though and he remains dangerous darting through cutback lanes.
For the third consecutive year, the club invested heavily in a backup running back, pouring a lot of money into a position where many teams choose to go cheap. Bush was signed to a $14 million, four-year contract with half of it guaranteed, following Marion Barber and Chester Taylor, who came before him. Barber earned $2.5 million in 2011 and Taylor picked up $7 million in 2010. So, with Bush pocketing $5,004,805 last season the Bears have devoted more than $14.5 million to backup running backs over the last three seasons.
Bush becomes more affordable in 2013 after the $4 million signing bonus he was paid last year. He’s on the books for $2.55 million and his ability to catch out of the backfield should make him a fit for Trestman. Although he caught only nine passes last season, he had 37 receptions in 2011 with the Raiders.
Bush got ample use as a short-yardage back and rushed for 411 yards on 114 carries, scoring as many touchdowns as Forte — five. He missed the final three games with a rib injury and that created some opportunities for shifty Armando Allen, who gained 124 yards on 27 rushes.
Evan Rodriguez, drafted in the fourth round as a tight end, was shifted to fullback to fill a need for a player who could move well in space. He got 213 snaps and caught just four passes. It would not be surprising if the Bears got in the market for a more traditional fullback and moved Rodriguez back to tight end.
Free agency/draft priority: After guaranteeing $24 million to Forte and Bush last offseason, the Bears aren’t going to be big shoppers at this position. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them consider a fullback and it never hurts to draft a young running back with an eye toward having him contribute on special teams. Allen can’t make the team again without a competition.
Change in coaching staff means: It should mean a lot more versatile uses for the running backs and more action in the passing game. To get the backs out in the pattern, though, there will need to be an upgrade on the offensive line so they’re not needed to protect the quarterback as regularly. Look for Forte to be happy with his role. Veteran Skip Peete will take over as the position coach.
Bottom line: The Bears don’t get off the bus running any longer and they have a good chunk of money and cap space ($9.85 million in Forte and Bush for 2013) invested in the position. They’re going to need to get more production from the position and Trestman might just have the plan for that.
Third in a 10-part series. Coming Thursday: Linebackers