In the NFL, moving the football one yard, or three feet, at the opportune moment, can often be the difference between a win and a loss. When you consider the razor-thin margin of error resultant from a 16-game season, those three feet could cost a team a shot at making the playoffs.
No wonder they call it a game of inches.
For as long as most fans can remember, the Chicago Bears have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the league in short-yardage situations. For more than half a decade, Bears fans have cringed when 3rd-and-1 or 4th-and-1 plays arise, as the all-too-familiar slam-a-running-back-into-the-back-of-the-offensive-line-for-no-gain play is likely just around the corner.
The offensive line is the biggest determining factor in short-yardage. If they can get push up front, moving the ball three yards is relatively easy.
Yet NFL defensive linemen are huge and they get paid too. It’s rare when a ball carrier has a clear path to pay dirt. In reality, short-yardage situations will require a running back to either make a defender miss in the backfield or carry a defender over the goal line.
For all of his immense talent as an all-around back, Matt Forte is not that type of runner. Which is why the team continually invested in veteran backups like Chester Taylor, Marion Barber and Michael Bush, none of whom proved adept on 3rd and 1.
On the current Bears roster, there is no overpaid No. 2 running back, just a fourth-round rookie who proved last week he can grind out three feet when the team needs it most.
In the fourth quarter of Thursday’s contest against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ka’Deem Carey faced two 3rd-and-1 situations. On his first carry, an off-tackle run, he bounced the play outside and picked up two yards. On his second carry from the 1-yard line, Carey lowered his head and plowed through a defender to score a touchdown.
For Carey, the key to being effective near the goal line is to turn off his mind and rely on instinct.
“You just have to shut your mind off. Don’t think about it and just go full speed into it,” Carey told Bear Report. “I know the offensive line are pushing hard so all I have to do is bury my head and get the first. My main goal is to get that one yard. As long as I get the first, that’s the key to the play.”
Carey said the coaching staff hasn’t discussed his role as a short-yardage back, yet it’s obvious from the film he has the potential to be successful in that role.
“They haven’t said too much but to go out there and play. But if they tell me that’s what they want me to do, I’ll definitely go in there and do whatever helps the team to get that first down,” Carey said. “You want to live to see another down, so you go out there and you dive in there. You can get taken out the next play but your team is still on the field looking for a touchdown. So whatever to help the team, and I think I’m a team player. That’s why I go in there and do that.”
Learning to shut his brain off has been one of many challenges for Carey, who is in a two-man competition with veteran Shaun Draughn to be Forte’s backup.
“First coming in, I kind of looked at [the coaches] and [thought], ‘Oh, that’s kind of out of my [comfort zone].’ I kind of downgraded myself,” said Carey. “Then I just took the time to learn everything they want. I came to realize it’s everything I can do. That’s just the big thing I’m focusing on is trying to please [the coaches] and go out there and do what they want me to do.”
Carey, a consensus All-American the past two seasons, led the FBS in rushing yards (1,929) in 2012, yet he’s now in a battle for a roster spot. It’s a big shift for any former Big Man on Campus, yet Carey said the competition is making him a better player.
“I think it’s going great,” Carey said. “I think all of us running backs, we’re just competing our butts off. It’s just making us better, making us learn the offense faster. Shaun, he’s a great talent, he’s just making me better. I like the way he runs routes so after practice, or whatever I’m doing, I try to go out there and better myself on my routes. It’s just pushing us all.”
In reality, Draughn’s experience, particularly in pass protection, will likely force Carey to third on the depth chart. Yet that doesn’t mean he can’t have an immediate impact as the club’s short-yardage back this season. If Carey emerges as a viable option on 3rd-and-1, 4th-and-1 and goal-to-go, he’ll be worth his weight in gold by the end of the season.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.