There has been a running joke, more of a stereotype, actually, for the better part of a quarter-century that the Bears franchise simply has been “behind the times” when it came to adapting to the rapidly-changing landscape of the NFL.
An organization rooted deeply in the tradition of defense and great running backs has largely ignored the passing game. That is until this offseason when new general manager Phil Emery radically addressed the wide receiver depth chart to complement Jerry Angelo’s crowning achievement of bringing the organization its best and most talented quarterback in Jay Cutler three years ago.
The Bears haven’t had a 1,000-yard receiver since Marty Booker in 2002, the longest streak among any franchise in the NFL, which is a bit of an embarrassment. That should end this season, barring injury, with 2012 Pro Bowl MVP Brandon Marshall hauling in passes from his former Broncos teammate, Cutler.
But despite Emery addressing the passing game, he, like his predecessor Angelo, understands the need to have a strong run game to complement the pass. He also knows that gone are the days of the featured back offense, and a new era of multi-back systems has been ushered in.
The use of multiple running backs, combined with the short shelf life of the position, poses the following question to anyone wondering why the Bears have yet to sign Matt Forte to a lucrative contract extension: “Why would any team give a running back a huge chunk of guaranteed money?” Especially one that will be 27 this year, who not only has probably reached his peak after playing the best season of his career, but is also coming off a knee injury.
Chicago Tribune Bears beat reporter Brad Biggs writes:
The club’s approach seems curious, at best. Since signing Thomas Jones to a $10 million, four-year contract in 2004, the Bears have paid a lot of money to all the wrong running backs. Cedric Benson left after three seasons with $13.8 million, and to get him on the field ex-general manager Jerry Angelo had to give Jones away. More recently, the Bears wasted $9.5 million the last two seasons on Chester Taylor and Marion Barber.
When the Bears signed [Michael] Bush to a $14 million, four-year deal with half of it guaranteed, Forte tweeted he was “disrespected.” That’s one way of putting it. Bush will earn $5 million this season so that is $14.5 million to Forte’s three backups over a course of three seasons.
There is nothing curious about the Bears approach, Brad. The Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson saga is a bad comparison to the signings of Chester Taylor, Marion Barber, and Michael Bush.
First, the Bears originally brought in Jones to fit into Terry Shea’s offense, a system designed to utilize a shifty back who can catch passes out of the backfield. When the Shea experiment failed and he was fired after one year, they wanted to bring in more production at the running back position and saw great value with Benson as the No. 4 pick in the 2005 draft. If you recall, after the Shea firing and before the team selected Benson, Lovie Smith declared that the Bears wanted to get back to the team’s roots and focus on the ground game, and “get off the bus running.”
It may have escaped us at the time, those of us who wanted the Bears to select USC wide receiver Mike Williams, but with all the information we have now, is there any wonder why the Bears selected Benson when they clearly intended to run the ball more?
That’s it. End of story. The Thomas Jones saga is done. When you pay a rookie fourth-overall pick huge money — and remember, this was before the new CBA severely cut down how much rookies were being paid — you don’t bench or cut the player just because another veteran on the team outperforms him.
So, if Biggs wants to call Benson “the wrong back” to be getting paid by the Bears, that’s fine. But hindsight is 20-20 and when Benson got paid his big money, it was not the wrong move at the time. Nobody knew Jones would go on to have several productive seasons.
As far as the other situation — the Bears paying big money to backups each of the last three seasons — the organization knows what it is doing. Jerry Angelo knew and now Phil Emery knows.
It does not make sense to allocate all your resources to one running back. Forte went down last season with a knee injury and two separate running backs — Barber and Kahlil Bell — had 100-yard games in his absence. When Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson battled a string of injuries late in the season, the Vikings chugged along and backup Toby Gerhart rushed for 413 yards on 85 carries, an average of 4.8 yards per carry, over the last six games.
And that’s Adrian Peterson, one of, if not the best running back of the past half-decade. If a team as bad as the Vikings can maintain a ground game without a player as good as him, can’t all teams do the same with a capable backup running back?
Look no further than Chris Johnson for money poorly spent on a running back. The Tennessee Titans’ Pro Bowl running back staged a holdout last year, received a $53.5 million contract, and then proceeded to rush for just 1,047 yards, a paltry total by today’s standards, especially considering the money he’d just been given.
The Bears have been doing the right thing by dishing out money to Forte’s backups over the last three seasons. It takes a committee approach in today’s NFL. If Brad Biggs, or any other disgruntled Forte supporters out there, wants to fault the Bears for the money they’ve spent, blame them for bringing in the wrong backup running back, not for paying the backup running back.
And certainly don’t blame them for failing to cave in to a whiny, burgeoning prima donna starting back.
While the Bears will be more dynamic with Forte in the backfield, they can still win a championship without him, and that will be due to their passing game.
And we have Emery to thank for finally catching up the Bears to the rest of the NFL.