For most of the 2011 campaign, Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte led the league in yards from scrimmage. Due to a knee injury that cut his season four games short that year, he finished just 10th in the league in yards from scrimmage, yet it was then, in Mike Martz's offense, that Forte truly showed his potential as an all-around offensive threat.
Somehow, last year's offensive coordinator Mike Tice forgot the value of Forte as a receiver. He ran the ball 248 times, his most carries since 2009, yet his 44 receptions for 340 yards were the lowest receiving totals of his career. Not surprisingly, Chicago's passing attack finished 29th in the league in 2012.
"I think last year was basically the only time that happened," Forte said during veteran minicamp this offseason. "Before that, I actually was running the ball and catching the ball out of the backfield, had multiple catches. Last year was the only [reduction] in catches. Brandon had a lot of catches, and everybody else really didn't have a whole lot. We were kind of one-dimensional last year I would say."
Under new head coach Marc Trestman, Forte doesn't foresee that problem continuing.
"I would expect [to be used more]," he said. "Coach Trestman I think he said he watched a lot of film on me and has seen me run different routes. So we'll get back to catching the ball out of the backfield like we did the prior years. It's going to be an emphasis for us this year to spread the ball around so that it works; it's balanced. The defense can't just focus on one guy or one position."
This isn't just the case of a starting running back talking up his new coach. Historically, running backs under Trestman have been utilized heavily as pass catchers.
In his first gig as an offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns in 1988, Trestman's leading receiver was running back Earnest Byner (59 catches). As OC of the San Francisco 49ers in 1995, Derek Loville caught 87 passes for 662 yards. When Trestman ran the Arizona Cardinals' offense in 1998, Larry Centers, a fullback, was second on the team with 69 receptions. And in 2000, Michael Pittman led the Cardinals with 73 catches.
Trestman's final OC gig in the NFL came with the Oakland Raiders from 2001-2003. His pass-catching back during that time was Charlie Garner. In 2001, Garner caught 72 passes for 578 yards. The next year, he caught 91 passes for 942 yards. Injuries reduced Garner's 2003 season to just nine starts, yet he still caught 48 passes. In his three years under Trestman, Garner averaged 70 receptions and 635 receiving yards.
Of all those names just mentioned, Forte is as good, if not better, then each as a pass catcher. If he were to just match Garner's three-year average, he would post career highs in single-season catches (63, set in 2008) and receiving yards (547, set in 2010).
Barring injury, there's no reason to believe that won't happen. During the offseason programs, Forte was used often as a receiver. In Trestman's West Coast system, the ball is supposed to come out of Jay Cutler's hands quickly. If the first and second reads aren't there, Cutler is told to dump the ball to Forte, wherever he is on the field.
And helping Forte's cause is the other weapons surrounding him. With Brandon Marshall commanding double teams on nearly every play and tight end Martellus Bennett working the middle of the field, as well as the threat of Alshon Jeffery on the other side, opposing defense won't be able to key on Forte. As such, it would not be surprising to see Forte approach 80 receptions in 2012.
If he's given his standard workload as a runner, which typically results in roughly 1,000 yards on the ground, will his added production as a receiver put him in the running for NFC Offensive Player of the Year this season?
Forte could lead the league in yards from scrimmage this year, which will help his case, yet touchdowns are usually the barometer by which P.O.Y. votes are measured. Forte has never had more than nine combined rushing and receiving touchdowns in any single season, which just isn't good enough for the hardware.
And that isn't likely to change for as long as Michael Bush is on the roster. Bush rushed just 114 times for the Bears in 2012, which is less than half of Forte's carries, yet the two both had five rushing touchdowns. Looking back to Trestman's days in Oakland, during which current Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer was the offensive line coach, the backfield was used in a similar fashion, with Tyrone Wheatley stealing the goal-line looks from Garner.
So while Forte is going to rack up the yards this year, his relative lack of touchdowns could prevent him from earning NFC P.O.Y. honors. Although if his presence on the field helps Chicago's offense turn into a juggernaut, no one will be in a position to complain.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.