The Chicago Bears always have been and always will be a running football team, and head coach Lovie Smith often reminds us of that just in case we happen to forget.
But after general manager Jerry Angelo shocked the world and brought Pro Bowl passer Jay Cutler to the Windy City this offseason, naturally, many of the questions during OTAs at Halas Hall revolved around the passing game.
Can Cutler instantly be just as good in Chicago as he was last year in Denver? Does he need an upgrade at the wide receiver position in order to succeed? Is tight end Greg Olsen ready to become a breakout star since he and his new QB have been developing good chemistry – both in practice and on Rush Street – together?
However, let's get back to the running game for a moment. Needless to say, Matt Forte had a sensational rookie campaign and looks to be the next great tailback for this franchise. Fantasy football experts from sea to shining sea certainly think so, ranking the one-time Tulane Green Wave as high as No. 2 overall behind Minnesota superstar Adrian Peterson in your upcoming draft. Not only is Forte strong enough to bang between tackles and fast enough to turn the corner outside, but he's already one of the better pass catchers in the league at his position, as well. After racking up 1,238 yards on the ground this past season, he could realistically challenge the 1,500-yard mark in 2009 – especially with Cutler at the controls.
Jones appeared good as new in Week 1 at Indy.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
That being said, don't let Forte's overwhelming success as a first-year player fool you into thinking that the Monsters of the Midway had a great running game last year.
As a matter of fact, Forte and Co. were only 24th in the league running the ball at 104.6 yards per game and tied for 26th at 3.9 yards per carry. On top of that, this team had trouble moving the chains in short-yardage situations, and Forte was also stoned at the goal line more often than an elite ball carrier should be these days. A lot of the blame needs to be shared by the offensive line, and we'll see how much of a difference three new starters can make in 2009: Orlando Pace at left tackle, Chris Williams at right tackle, and Frank Omiyale at left guard assuming he beats out incumbent Josh Beekman as expected.
So how could Forte be so productive but the ground game as a whole be so, well, unproductive? Quite simply, Forte was on the field entirely too often and didn't have anybody behind him capable of sharing the load. And as many rookies do, Forte eventually hit a wall, battled a minor injury, and faded down the stretch.
But you can't blame Forte himself for limping to the finish line. Blame the coaching staff for not having enough confidence in any of the reserves. Blame Angelo for expecting Kevin Jones to be fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered just the previous December. Blame Adrian Peterson and Garrett Wolfe for being so mediocre with the pigskin in their hands. While Forte proved to be a warrior, the NFL has turned into a two-back league more than ever recently.
|"I thought last year that I was 100 percent, but now I know that I wasn't because I feel that much better this year. So it's kind of like comparing the two years, and I just feel a lot better now."|
– RB Kevin Jones
Forte was on the field for 850 of 1,012 plays (84 percent) in 2008. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner admitted more than once that his workhorse was simply too good to sit on the sideline, even if only for a series each half. But if the former second-round draft pick wants to have a longer career than Gale Sayers – the Hall of Famer was essentially done at age 26 because of injuries – Turner need to find a reliable second option.
The irony here is that the best candidate to be said second option was on the roster last year, too.
Jones, a one-time first-rounder of the division-rival Lions and once upon a time the premier high school player in the country, signed with the Bears this past offseason after being somewhat curiously jettisoned by Detroit. The 6-0, 228-pounder made a miraculous comeback to be a part of the 53-man roster out of training camp, running hard to the tune of 13 carries for 45 yards in a season-opening upset victory at Indy. But Jones only received 21 attempts the rest of the year – none after Week 10 – and was even inactive for a month because he didn't play special teams. To his credit, he volunteered to be a part of the coverage units in December to help the club. Peterson took over as Forte's backup.
Jones didn't get a single attempt after Week 10.
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Jones is fully recovered from the wrecked knee that cost him the last month of 2007 and hindered him much of '08, and he now knows he wasn't as healthy as he thought he was last season.
"I thought last year that I was 100 percent," Jones told Bear Report during OTAs, "but now I know that I wasn't because I feel that much better this year. So it's kind of like comparing the two years, and I just feel a lot better now."
The former Virginia Tech Hokie shopped himself around as a free agent in the offseason and could have signed with a team that doesn't have a primary back as strong as Forte, but he re-signed with the Bears because he was comfortable in the locker room.
"It was just [an] all-around good situation," he said. "The city, the organization, and the teammates were a big part of it. Sometimes when you're happy, you've got to stay put."
On top of that, the coaching staff has assured Jones that he will be a much bigger part of the offense. With Peterson little more than a special teamer and Wolfe shaping up to be the same, Jones could be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for 2009. There is little to worry about with Forte. He appears to be a perennial Pro Bowler and will still get 20-25 touches per game. But if this team wants to control the clock, win the field-position battle, and give its defense enough time to rest in between series – you know, play Bears football – then Jones must be able to spell Forte here and there and demand six to eight touches himself.
Maybe then the Midway Monsters will be able to close out opponents in the fourth quarter, which is something they did poorly in 2008.
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.