The Chicago Bears have put an awful lot of faith in the third-year pro, dealing three-time leading rusher and locker-room favorite Thomas Jones to the New York Jets in March for a flip-flop of second-round draft picks. While Benson is overflowing with power and pedigree, he's never been a featured ball-carrier in the NFL and has shown a knack for ticky-tack injuries in two seasons.
Benson played in just nine games as a rookie in 2005, but he ran well with 272 yards on 67 attempts. This past year as the primary backup, he accumulated 647 yards on 157 carries and scored 6 touchdowns. He really came on strong down the stretch and at times was more effective than the starter Jones.
But since Jones is no longer in the Windy City, Benson will likely be asked to double that 157-carry total from a year ago and be the workhorse back he was both as a prepster and a collegian in the Lone State State.
However, he's off to a slow start in the preseason, totaling just 47 yards on 15 carries in two games. Head coach Lovie Smith loves to say that his offense comes off the team bus running the football, but 3.1 yards per carry is not going to get it done. Benson has waited two long years to be the unquestioned starter for this team, so now that he has his wish, it's time to start backing up all that talk.
Running backs coach Tim Spencer believes that Benson is progressing just fine to this point, although he does appear to have reservations about his top tailback being overused.
"He's getting a lot of reps in practice obviously," Spencer said after Thursday's workout at Halas Hall. "Game reps – we have a plan of what we like to get our ones and twos, and he's pretty much on par in terms of what we'd like to get him. We like what we see at practice. We know that he'll be ready. We're not trying to wear him out before we get to the season obviously, but 350 reps is an awful lot. I would rather not have him [get] that many, but we'll have to see how it goes."
While right guard Roberto Garza enjoys running the football as much as anyone, he knows that the entire offense needs to be firing on all cylinders.
"Obviously we know we're a running football team," said Garza, "and obviously that's what we want to work on. But you've got to have all facets of the offense performing well right before the season. It's all a part of the preseason, trying to work on the stuff you didn't do as well in the past. As we get closer to the season, we'll know what kind of team we are."
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner has been calling a lot of passing plays so far during the exhibition schedule, doing what he can to acclimate quarterback Rex Grossman with all the new weapons he has on offense. First-round tight end Greg Olsen will certainly play a big role as a rookie, and cornerback-turned-receiver Devin Hester is arguably the most exciting player in the entire NFL. That being said, if the Bears are, always have been, and always will be a running team, shouldn't Turner be feeding the ball to Benson a little more often?
Grossman must take advantage of all the talent around him and has to protect the football at all costs, but if Benson and the rushing attack don't get untracked, that will make his job much tougher.
Benson has always professed to get better the more carries he gets, and he believes everyone involved in the running game works the same way.
"The offense as a whole," Benson explained, "the offensive line, they also want to get a good feel, too. So it's kind of the structure of our running game. The more attempts we go at [it], the better off we tend to get."
And even though Turner knows he's in big trouble if Benson goes down with another injury, he can't afford to take his foot off the gas pedal either.
"He's got to go play," Turner admitted. "If we start telling him not to run with his style or whatever, that's when you have problems. He's got to go play. He's got to run and learn. Preseason is a good time to learn when to take people on and when to try to make them miss and get a feel for the game. So we're just telling him to get the ball in his hands and run hard."
An All-Pro like middle linebacker Brian Urlacher doesn't necessarily need exhibition reps because he has a track record of success, but Benson still needs to prove that he can be the tailback this team needs him to be.
John Crist is the Editor in Chief of BearReport.com and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.