For his first two years in the NFL, running back Matt Forte was clearly the main man in the Bears' running attack.
As a rookie in 2008, Forte had a whopping 379 touches, rushing 316 times for 1,238 yards with eight touchdowns and catching a team-best 63 passes for 477 yards and four more scores. No other Bear had more than 34 rushing attempts. Last season Forte's carries dropped to 258, but that was still more than twice the total of every other Bears ball carrier combined, and none of them had more than 40 carries. And Forte added 57 catches, tied for second on the team, for 471 yards.
But now, for the first time in his professional career, Forte will be asked to share the load. The offseason acquisition of veteran Chester Taylor gives the Bears a solid one-two punch with no expected drop-off from Forte, who is still the starter, to Taylor. Both players are versatile enough to run inside and outside and also provide another threat in the passing game.
The way Forte is looking at it, less could be more. He is neither put off by the competition nor surprised that Taylor was brought in.
"This is the NFL," Forte said after Wednesday's OTA practice. "People are going to be brought in and out of the mix. Competition is part of the game. If you're afraid of competition you shouldn't be playing anyway, so I come out here and compete every day."
There was speculation that the heavy load Forte carried as a rookie caused his productivity to drop last year, when his average yards per carry dipped from 3.9 to 3.6. He was also hampered by an offseason hamstring injury that lingered into the season. Taylor's presence will reduce the wear and tear on Forte, and vice versa.
"A lot of teams have a two-running back system, and actually it prolongs both their careers," Forte said, "so I don't mind having him here to take some reps and get in there as long as we win games and it's working."
In offseason work, Forte appears to have recaptured the quickness he showed as a rookie that sometimes seemed to be lacking last season.
"I feel a lot faster," he said. "I'm not injured during OTAs unlike last year, and at the end of last season I had [arthroscopic] knee surgery. But I got that healed up, and I actually went down to Florida and did some training so I could re-do the speed training and stuff that I did before that I wasn't [able] to do because of my injuries."
A healthy Forte, even if he cedes some of the backfield work to Taylor, could put up some impressive numbers in the Mike Martz offensive scheme that spawned record-breaking stats for Marshall Faulk a decade ago. From 1999-2001, Faulk averaged 2,225 yards of total offense and scored 59 touchdowns.
"You don't even have to look at the numbers, just the name of Marshall Faulk," Forte said. "We watch a lot of old film on them, when they had Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce and all those guys, and it just makes you get excited about how good this offense can be with some of the talented guys we've got on this team that can fit those positions."
With Taylor complementing him, Forte won't threaten Faulk's numbers, but if the Bears' offense thrives under Martz, he'll still be a huge part of the resurgence.
NOTES AND QUOTES
So Tinoisamoa will have to win his job back from Nick Roach, who stepped in after the veteran was injured and led the team with 10 tackles for loss in 2009 and played well enough in 15 starts to remain with the first team.
"Nick Roach is a good football player," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He can do it all. He's a good rusher. We'll be comfortable with him there."
Roach had a strained hamstring during minicamp that wasn't considered serious, but he is back on the field for OTAs.
"We'll take our time with Nick," Smith said. "He has a hammy that's a little sore. He's gone through all of the offseason work, so we know what Nick is about."
Tinoisamoa took most of the first-team reps on the strong side during minicamp, but he has been limited, too, because of last season's knee surgery. During most of the OTAs, Roach has been close to 100 percent, while Tinoisamoa is still not practicing full speed.
While Roach is presently ahead in their battle, it will probably not be decided until training camp. ...
Even though Martz is rarely at a loss for words, especially when the topic is offensive football, it was difficult for him to offer much of an assessment on sixth-round quarterback Dan LeFevour's progress at the full-team minicamp.
"It's pretty hard to judge," Martz said. "He's a rookie. We don't give him much right now. He's lucky to find the huddle from the sideline right now, so that's kind of the way it goes. But he's very promising, I like his ability and he's really a student of the game. He's worked hard at learning what we do.
"The worst thing we could do right now is put him in there and give him a bunch of plays. We'd like to have him be a spectator as much as possible for a while... because you can kind of break a guy's confidence. So we're very careful about how much we give him." ...
Because No. 2 quarterback Caleb Hanie has almost no game experience in the regular season, and he hasn't played very well in the offseason, there has been talk that the Bears would look to sign a veteran quarterback to play behind Jay Cutler. And the Bears have yet to decide on a starting left guard, leaving the offensive line somewhat unsettled.
But general manager Jerry Angelo sounds like he's willing to go into the 2010 season with the team he has assembled.
"If we take this football team into camp and into the season, I'm fine with it," Angelo said. "We've built some pretty good teams in the past, and I like this one, and I feel I'm speaking for everyone that's associated with it. We'll continue to look, as we always do, because it is about competition. But I don't feel we have a need to do anything.
"We have a lot of confidence in the players we have. I have a lot of confidence in our coaches and how they coach and teach. We must continue to develop as a team, and that happens over a period of time." ...
Practice is different for the Bears this offseason, at least for the offense, where Martz has replaced Ron Turner. There's a noticeable difference in tempo.
"It's a lot more upbeat," Forte said. "The repetition is a lot faster and so is the speed. When you get the play in and we run a play, everybody's got to run down the field, and as soon as you get back, we're calling another play. So it's rapid fire.
"You get more reps that way, and it helps you learn the offense better and it also gets you ready for game speed and for conditioning also. You don't have to do a lot of conditioning if you do it on the field during practice."
QUOTE TO NOTE
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Forte Takes Taylor Addition in Stride
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