What happened to the two-back system?

November 25th, 2008 - 10:23 pm

The plan was to use two running backs. It’s something Lovie Smith has stressed since he became Bears head coach five years ago.

“You need at least two good running backs to make it through a season,” Lovie has said.

My question for Lovie, then, is what happened to the two-back approach? Do the Bears not believe in that philosophy anymore, or is it possible they never did? Could it be that the only reason Lovie said they needed two good running backs is because they didn’t believe Thomas Jones or Cedric Benson was a featured back capable of handling a workload? Did they have to give an excuse for why their No. 4 overall bust couldn’t unseat the crafty veteran and why they needed to keep Jones around for two of Benson’s years with the Bears?

It’s been proven that some of the most effective running teams utilize a two-back attack. Just take a look at some of the top running teams in the league for examples.

The New York Giants employ Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Ahmad Bradshaw — who are being referred to as “Earth, Wind, and Fire”… God only knows why. It sounds kind of fruity and it’s a blatant ripoff of the old R&B group from the 70s. But they are the most effective group of backs in the league as they currently hold the No. 1 position in rushing yards.

The Baltimore Ravens use a trio as well in Willis McGahee, Le’Ron McClain, and Ray Rice — all with at least 90 carries and 380 yards.

Tennessee uses a “thunder and lightning” approach with LenDale White and Chris Johnson. The Panthers utilize DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The Jets have Thomas Jones and Leon Washington. The Jaguars use Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. The list goes on and on.

Even Minnesota, featuring “Purple Jesus” himself, Adrian Peterson, pull him out of the game several times to insert Chester Taylor.

So, why — if the Bears preach a two-back set — have they largely refused to put Kevin Jones into the game? And why are the Bears risking health and career longevity of their rookie of the year candidate, Matt Forte, by keeping him on the field nearly the entire game? Forte leads the NFL in touches — which is rushing attempts plus receptions. The Sun-Times’ Mike Mulligan has spoken out about this all year long. He’s offered statistics that show when a running back tops 370 carries in a season, not only does he face a greater risk for injury, but he typically sees his production the following year drop by 35 percent.

(I don’t have a link to Mulligan’s story, unfortunately, because the Sun-Times’ website displays an error page, but you can read a blurb about his claim on ESPN’s NFC North blog here).

The obvious answer to why Kevin Jones has not only not received a suitable amount of carries for a backup running back this year, but also why he has been inactive the past two weeks is that the Bears need special teams contributors, and Adrian Peterson and Garrett Wolfe have been just that.

If someone were to ask the Bears why Jones hasn’t seen more action, they’d give their typical response, which would sound something like, “Well, we just haven’t found the right time to insert Jones due to matchups and game situations.”

It’s clear Forte is the future of this team and the offense needs to be built around him. And it’s also obvious that when he’s on the field, he provides so much more versatility than the Bears have had from any running back in quite some time.

But if he continues at his current pace, he’s bound to endure more wear and tear than most rookie running backs, and the brevity of his NFL career — which, for a running back, is already the shortest among all positions on the field — is headed for a quick and unfulfilled future.