I was involved in a debate not too long ago regarding the Chicago Bears' offensive backfield. One party felt the club would have been better off last season with the 2006 duo of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson, than with Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. His argument was, had the team kept Benson and Jones, the front office could have drafted a top offensive linemen in the second round of the 2008 draft, instead of selecting Forte.
These types of barroom discussions never take into consideration the myriad other factors that could have led to the success or failure of any of the backs on Chicago's roster the past few years. Would Jones or Benson have been able to put up similar numbers in 2009 and 2010 running behind the Bears' porous offensive line? It's hard to say.
Then my one friend threw out a highly debatable statement: "But Forte can't make anyone miss."
At first, this declaration seemed ludicrous. Forte has always demonstrated outstanding field vision, especially in tight situations. Where Benson or Jones would have stormed right into the backs of their offensive linemen, Forte does well in scanning the field quickly and finding the small crease through which to run. He's a one-cut player who is adept at maneuvering his way through the trenches. A runner that can gain more than 1,000 yards with a front five like he had blocking for him last season obviously knows how beat defenders in space, right?
Pro Football Focus (PFF) has developed an analytical tool that can help us solve this debate. They use what is called an Elusive Rating: a formula that first combines carries and receptions to reach a "ball-handling opportunities" figure. Total forced missed tackles in both facets are then divided by that first number and the result is multiplied by yards per carry after contact and then again by 100.
(MTrush + MTrec) / (Rec + Att) * ( YCo / Att * 100)
RB Matt Forte
Only one NFC North back ranked in the top 15 in elusiveness the past three seasons – Minnesota's Adrian Peterson – with a 48.6 Elusive Rating (ER). From 2008-2010, only two runners from the Black and Blue Division landed in the bottom 15 in ER: Chester Taylor (21.7 ER) and Forte (23.3 ER).
It's difficult to be too harsh on either rusher, as they were both forced to run behind an offensive line that has had serious difficulty opening holes. Yet these numbers do show us a couple of things. First, Taylor is nowhere near the player he was earlier in his career. Not only did he fail as a short-yardage back last season but he's equally inept at making defenders miss in space. At this point in his career, his value to Chicago's team is borderline irrelevant.
Second, while Forte has great hands, good field vision and decent speed, and is outstanding in picking up the blitz, he may not be the best player for certain types of offensive plays. Swing passes and screens are designed to put the running back in open space. The hope is the ball carrier can make one or two defenders miss and gain yards after the catch. Forte's low ER demonstrates his inability to do so on a regular basis.
Bears' brass can use this information in two ways. The first would be to cut ties with Taylor and see what either Kahlil Bell or Harvey Unga can do as the first backup. Unga, in particular, is very intriguing. He's a big back (6-0, 247) yet he's very light on his feet. Game film from his BYU days shows a player that has the open-field moves to get past defenders. In addition, he has extremely soft hands. He could be very productive if given the chance to convert screens and swing passes.
The second would be to scale down some of Forte's workload. As good as he is in nearly every facet of the game, there's no need to wear him down. The 25 year old has averaged 270 carries and 53 receptions his first three NFL seasons. At that rate, he may not make it through the length of his next contract.
If Bell or Unga can spell Forte, then all the better. Yet if the coaches aren't sold on either player, the team should consider grabbing a veteran free agent runner who can produce in open space. One such player is Mewelde Moore. In his last three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Moore, as mainly a third-down back, finished in the Top 15 in ER. He could provide veteran leadership and production on the field, for a price tag nowhere the $6 million Chicago paid Taylor last season.
None of this is meant to be a knock on Forte, who has been a highly productive all-around player during his three NFL seasons. It's only meant to show that he's not Superman and that he could use some support.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport com. To read him every day, visit BearReport com and become a Chicago Bears insider.