The 2012 Bears spent a lot of money securing the latest in a succession of understudies to running back Matt Forte. They gave Michael Bush $7 million guaranteed as part of a four-year, $14 million contract. Bush carried 112 times and scored five rushing touchdowns — as many as Forte — for the 10-6 Bears.
The following year Bush was marginalized, with 63 carries and just three touchdowns.
Last year, after cutting Bush, the Bears used a fourth-round draft choice on a running back, Ka’Deem Carey, and used him even less than Bush’s low point: 36 carries.
Meaning: After 100-carry seasons by backups like Bush, Marion Barber, Chester Taylor, Adrian Peterson, even Cedric Benson, No.-2 running backs carried a combined 99 times in two seasons under the Marc Trestman/Aaron Kromer offense.
The Bears this year invested another fourth-round pick in a running back: Jeremy Langford from Michigan State. One surprise in the 2015 season will be if Langford is not handed the football more than Bush and Carey combined.
While the chief focus has been on defense and the Bears’ switch to a 3-4 under coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio, Fox and GM Ryan Pace would not have identified running back as a need area unless there was a plan to make extensive use of the position, and involving more than just Matt Forte.
It is simply Fox’s way.
“We’ve always been believers in kind of a 1-2 punch and rolling guys through there whether it’s the d-line; a wave of those guys to stay fresh,” Fox said. “I’ve always had the approach the same thing with running backs.”
He has indeed. In each of his four Denver Broncos seasons, Fox had two backs with at least 100 carries, with Ronnie Hillman’s 106 last season the fewest. And Hillman got those while playing just eight games, followed by C.J. Anderson (179 carries) after Hillman was injured. Add to that more than 50 carries each by Montee Ball and Juwann Thompson. Not since the days of Jim Harbaugh (1993) have the Bears had more than three players with 50 or more rushing attempts.
Fox’s commitment to backfield diversity has been to such a degree that the Carolina Panthers used No. 1 picks on running backs twice in three years — DeAngelo Williams in 2006, Jonathan Stewart in 2008 — and this on top of having DeShaun Foster from the 2002 second round, a 200-carry back from 2005-07.
Under Fox, Stewart (221 rushes for 1,133 yards) and Williams (216-1,117) became just the sixth duo of running backs in NFL history to both gain 1,000 yards in the same season (2009).
The Forte Factor
Forte is entering the final year of his contract, coming off a year that included an NFL-record 102 pass receptions to go with 1,038 rushing yards, the fifth time in his seven seasons with 1,000 yards (and 900-plus the other two).
Forte’s excellence is a “problem:” Why give the ball to a second-tier back when you have one of the NFL elites standing there?
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“This is an unusual situation just because Matt has been in such great shape and has been so dynamic as far as staying on the field,” said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. “We’ve just got to see how it plays out.”
One reason the Broncos made such use of multiple backs lay in injuries to Ball and Hillman, which required turning to Anderson, who was voted to the Pro Bowl despite starting just the second half of the season and wearing down for the final two games after four straight 20-carry games.
“C.J. would hate me for saying this, but he got tired and was a little chubby sometimes,” Gase said. “I mean, he got worn down quick and then we had to rotate backs in last year. Matt’s an unusual situation in that position because he’s able to play every play, or has.”