From Gale Sayers to Walter Payton, and to a lesser degree from Neal Anderson to Thomas Jones, the Monsters of the Midway always have been and always will be a running football team.
And just in case head coach Lovie Smith is reading this column right now, let's all say it together just to make him happy: "We get off the bus running the football."
After a slow start on the ground in 2006, the ground attack was very effective down the stretch and helped carry the Bears all the way to Super Bowl XLI. However, that was not the case this past season, as they finished 30th in the NFL at 83.1 rushing yards per game and dead last in the league at 3.1 yards per carry. Consequently, this team fell from NFC favorites to 7-9 also-rans seemingly overnight.
And while an aging and ineffective offensive line deserves its share of the blame, it's impossible to ignore the poor performance Cedric Benson delivered in his debut as the primary ball-carrier. The combination of Jones and Benson was quite effective the year before, but with Jones traded away to the Jets in order to make room for Benson full-time, the former No. 4-overall draft pick couldn't break big runs, put the football on the ground, and dropped passes at an alarming rate. He fractured his ankle in Week 12 against the Broncos just about the time he looked to be turning the corner, forcing general manager Jerry Angelo to put running back near the top of his list of needs heading into this past weekend's NFL Draft.
Angelo wasted little time fulfilling that need, selecting Matt Forte of Tulane at No. 44 overall in Round 2.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP Images
"I am happy to be drafted by the Chicago Bears, especially at running back," Forte said via conference call shortly after hearing his name called. "They have a great history of running backs there, so hopefully I can be one of those guys to make history as a Chicago Bear."
At 6-2 and 217 pounds, Forte was very impressive at the NFL Scouting Combine even though he was not one of the bigger names invited to Indianapolis. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds (Oregon's Jonathan Stewart ran 4.46), bench-pressed 225 pounds 23 times (West Virginia's Steve Slaton did 19), and had a vertical jump of 33 inches (the same as Arkansas' Darren McFadden). Statistically, he finished second in the nation last year behind Central Florida's Kevin Smith with an eye-popping 2,127 rushing yards.
Along with first-round offensive tackle Chris Williams of Vanderbilt, the Chicago running game got a serious makeover on Day 1 of the draft.
"We were of course familiar with the guys available at that pick, but this is the direction we wanted to go," said Smith. "Waking up this morning, if I had known then that we would have been able to pick these two players, it would be a pretty good day."
Forte was one of two tailbacks given a second-round grade by scouts that had a private workout for Bears officials before the draft, with Jamaal Charles of Texas being the other. While Charles looks to be more a complementary runner at the next level, a home-run hitter who might not be able to handle 20-25 carries per game, Forte is engineered to be a featured back on Sundays. In addition to his obvious talent carrying the ball, he's also an excellent receiver out of the backfield and a willing blocker in the passing game.
"I felt like our running game obviously was one of the weak spots on our football team," Angelo said. "He gives us a big back, a three-down back. He has enough speed to get to the outside, and he has the ability to make people miss at the second level. Those were two areas where we could really never find any consistency, which made us an easy team to defend from my perspective."
In other words, it appears that Forte excels specifically in the areas where Benson is especially weak.
Steve Coleman/AP Images
Forte certainly has the pedigree to succeed, as his father, Gene, was a team captain for the Green Wave in 1977. His older brother, Bryan, also played football at McNeese State. And even though he had to deal with the stigma of coming from a smaller school in a supposedly inferior conference, Forte was named MVP of the Senior Bowl back in January.
Still, he wasn't getting the attention he felt he deserved leading up to the draft, something he's had to deal with before.
"It wasn't disheartening to me that I wasn't getting recognized," said Forte. "In high school, I was overlooked a lot and was only offered one Division I scholarship. So it was kind of the same thing when I had to come in and do well at the Senior Bowl and the combine, and I did that. It's not over, though. I still have to make a name for myself in the NFL."
It may not have been disheartening to Forte, but his mere presence should be disheartening to Benson and his two backups, Adrian Peterson and Garrett Wolfe. Not only has Benson failed to live up to expectations entering the league as one of the most prolific collegiate runners of all time, but neither Peterson nor Wolfe made much of an impact in `07 after Benson was moved to injured reserve. Peterson averaged just 3.2 yards per carry in five starts to close out the season, and Wolfe got only 31 attempts as a rookie.
One of the three returning veterans is likely on his way out of town, since keeping four runners on a 53-man roster is simply unrealistic.
"It doesn't say anything about Cedric or Adrian or Garrett Wolfe," Smith said. "We had a chance to improve our ballclub at the running back position. We always try to do that. We want to add as many good football players to our team as we can. We're lucky to have the best 53 players on our roster, and adding a player like Matt makes us run better."
How much better?
"This kid is very passionate about football," said Angelo. "His dad played at Tulane. He comes from a great family. Everything about the kid in terms of his make-up, we like the player. How good he can be? That has to be determined by the player, but the traits are very good."
To be clearer, it seems Angelo believes Forte could be everything that Benson is not.
John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.