Former Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman liked to throw the ball, a lot. The Bears threw the seventh most passes in the league last year (609).
Conversely, Trestman handed the ball to his running backs just 302 total times, which was 30th in the league and less than half the team’s pass attempts. A surefire way to create a one-dimensional offense is to ignore the run game and force the quarterback into hero mode.
Chicago’s hero was supposedly Jay Cutler. Yet his lack of fundamentals, field vision and anticipation resulted in a league-leading 28 turnovers and mired the offense in mediocrity.
Cutler never played at a high level this year, yet Trestman kept putting the onus of the offense on the shoulders of his overwhelmed signal caller, which produced a 5-11 season.
Of all his mistakes last season, ignoring the run game in spite of a passing attack that was dragging the team down was Trestman’s biggest gaffe.
Even worse, the Bears have an extremely talented backfield, one that could have carried the offense this year, helping to control the clock and keep the spotty defense off the field.
2014 RB Rushing Totals
In no way was Matt Forte ignored this year. His 266 carries was the third highest total of his seven-year career. In addition, he caught 102 passes, the most by a running back in a single season in NFL history.
As both a runner and a receiver, Forte was given the workhorse treatment he deserved, and he rewarded the team with 1,846 yards from scrimmage, third most in the NFL.
In reality, the Bears couldn’t have used Forte, who turned 29 in December, any more than they did. The problem was ignoring Ka’Deem Carey for most of the year, particularly down the stretch.
Here are the rushing leaders amongst rookie running backs last season:
Notice Carey’s 4.4 yards per rush was higher than seven of the nine rookies on this list, behind only Jeremy Hill and Jerick McKinnon. Yet those nine backs averaged 170 carries in their first year; Carey had just 41 touches total his rookie season.
In the second half of the campaign, Carey had just eight carries and four catches. That’s 12 total touches in eight games. Carey was such an afterthought that Trestman didn’t even activate him in the final two contests.
“I’m just asking for seven or eight carries and I feel like the offense would be a different type of offense,” Carey told me after the season. “I don’t know how they missed it this year with the me and Matt.”
Carey doesn’t have blazing speed but he runs hard between the tackles and has decent hands out of the backfield. He has a thick base and a low center of gravity, and can get the tough yards up the middle and near the goal line. Splitting 30-40 carries each week between him and Forte could have changed the entire dynamic of the offense, and possibly the entire season.
“I just was expecting to get used,” said Carey. “I’m just kind of confused. We’re going to wait and see next year what the next coaching staff has for me.”
The Bears’ next head coach will have two choices: follow in Trestman’s footsteps and force Cutler to win games on his own, or build the offense around a solid run game featuring both Forte and Carey.
Forte will be 30 before season’s end next year, so now is the time to begin limiting his touches. He’s arguably the most physically fit and well-maintained running back in the league, so he can be productive well into his 30s, but his days of carrying the offense must soon come to an end.
In reality, a near even split in carries between Forte and Carey next season would be ideal. Forte will get his additional touches on third downs as a pass catcher but reducing his workload on the ground would save wear and tear on his body and keep him fresh late in the season.
With Carey, the Bears have the opportunity to create a two-headed monster that could rival some of the best dual-threat backfields in the NFL. Imagine what that would do for the play-action attack.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Surprisingly, the Bears were actually very good running up the middle in 2014. According to Football Outsiders (FO), they were the eighth best team in the league running between the guards.
Off-tackle right was also a hot spot for the run game, with the team averaging 4.30 adjusted line yards per carry behind RT Jordan Mills. There wasn’t as much luck off the left side, where the Bears averaged just 3.48 yards per carry, 22nd in the league. The return of left guard Matt Slauson should help in that area.
The numbers show a Chicago offensive line that is more than adequate as a run-blocking unit. Add another piece to the puzzle through the draft and the offense can quickly develop into a successful run-first unit.
Yet one area must improve, with equal emphasis for both the linemen and the running backs: second-level efficiency. According to FO, the Bears were dead last in the NFL in open field yards (yards gained more than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage).
The inability of the front five to execute down the field combined with a lack of elusiveness from the ball carriers puts a cap on the run game and limits game-changing runs. It’s an area that must be addressed.
Final Grade: B
Forte and Carey did the most they could with the touches they were given. If the new head coach and offensive coordinator commit to these two as the backbone of the offense, a new era of competency could emerge in the Windy City.
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.