Who's to blame?
We thought Forte was going to be great. Has he peaked, or is the O-line the problem?
The men responsible for protecting and paving a safe path for Bears running back Matt Forte are, on this day, doing a splendid job.
"He's a pro. Matt can do everything you ask him to do," Bears center Olin Kreutz says. His offensive linemates echo his words, quick to be accountable for a running game that is bearing the brunt of criticism for an otherwise above-average 3-2 football team.
And well they should. Their play this season has been replete with both physical and mental errors that pretty much cover the spectrum of bad.
But maybe it's time to redirect our focus from the line to Forte, to rethink not just our zealous evaluation of his rookie season, when he broke the franchise rushing record, but also our expectations for the rest of his career.
We're a little nutty about our running backs here, perhaps not as anguished as we have been at the dearth of good quarterbacks, but pretty close. And whenever a talented back comes along, we're convinced he'll be great. Maybe not Walter Payton great, but perhaps if we wish hard enough
Neal Anderson was a fine player in his own right, a four-time Pro Bowler. His problem was coming right after Payton; playing during the same era as Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Thurman Thomas; playing when the bottom fell out on the Mike Ditka-led Bears and ending his career prematurely by injury.
Anderson never had us fooled the way Rashaan Salaam did. When he arrived two years after Anderson left, we might not have thought he was Hall of Fame-bound, but he certainly was exciting, and the Heisman Trophy winner did break the team's rookie rushing record with 1,074 yards. But alas, within three years, injuries and fumbles and what he later said was a marijuana addiction did him in.
That old rookie rushing record would fall again in 2001, when Anthony Thomas ran for 1,183 yards. The A-Train won the NFL Rookie of the Year award, and well, forget Salaam, this kid from Michigan was for real. But Thomas faded, overshadowed by the speedier and more sure-handed Thomas Jones, and we remember only too well what has happened since.
So what to make of young Forte?
Aside from operating behind a subpar offensive line, Forte may well be running on a bad knee that he injured during the first quarter of the Seattle game (Sept. 27), in which he gained 66 yards on 21 carries.
After the Detroit game a week later, in which Forte broke two runs of 61 and 37 yards, Kreutz stood in the opposite end of the locker room and praised the running back.
"I don't know if a lot of people know that Matt is playing with a bad knee, but he's still out there playing hard, and he still broke a couple runs today," Kreutz said.
Indeed, Forte looked gimpy on the longer of his two runs and has not appeared to possess the same explosiveness he had last season. But he insists the knee is not hindering him.
"I don't think anybody plays at 100 percent, but my knee's fine," he said. "If I wasn't capable of playing, I wouldn't go out there."
When Forte fumbled twice at the goal line at Atlanta, it left us with no other choice but to wonder whether the problems with the running game are affecting his entire game; whether the offensive line has contributed to a sophomore slump.
"If Matt's in a sophomore slump, then I'm in an 11-year slump," Kreutz said. "It's all of us."
But Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner agreed that Forte's tentativeness at the line at times is not our imagination.
"Sometimes when you're not having success, you start overanalyzing instead of just reacting and playing," Turner said. "When that happens, you have to work your way out of it, you've just got to go. Pop a couple runs, get that swagger back and then it all comes. It can come as quickly as it went.
"Like in baseball, a hitter gets in a slump, you just have to hit a couple line drives, get a couple singles, get the confidence back, get that feel back. It's the same thing."
Cedric Benson, whom the Bears will face on Sunday and might not recognize as the league's third-leading rusher, often was criticized for bouncing his runs outside rather than finding the holes and running through them. After Benson, Forte was lauded for doing just that. But this season, Forte, too, is doing the bouncing thing.
"Well, yeah," Kreutz said again on his behalf. "If I don't miss my block and my man is 2 yards in the backfield, then Matt doesn't have to bounce it outside."
Forte could not disagree.
"Sometimes that's how you make plays," he said. "If you bounce it outside and there's one guy there and you make him miss, you go for 50. If you don't, you go for a 1-to-2-yard gain."
He did the same thing last season, he pointed out, when the O-line overcame injury to pull together better than it has showed this season.
"Sometimes it just came later in the game," he said. "I would hit up there and hit it up there, and then they'd expect me to do that, and I'd bounce it outside."
The wearing-down of the defense is obviously not happening this season. Not in games [the Bears are ranked 27th in rushing yards per contest], and not on drives [they are averaging 2.4 yards per run on first down].
Forte said it does not matter whether there are eight men in the box.
"I know it's coming," he said of the consistency the offense is looking for. "In the Detroit game, we ran the ball very well, and some people might say, 'It was just Detroit.'
"But on one of the runs, I made somebody miss. A running back has to use your vision, your talent and sometimes you have to be physical, run through somebody or make somebody miss."
Was last season's success a product of good blocking, or did Forte make a decent line look better? Is he making this season's line look worse, or is it a little of both?
"Sometimes there's nowhere for him to run," fullback Jason McKie said. "You can't just blame that on one person. I mean, he has the ball in his hands, but there are 10 other guys out there that have to do their job for him to be successful. So I think it's a reflection on the offense as a whole."
Either way, no one is happy.
"It's a hard season," Forte admitted. "People are saying all this stuff about the running game, and it's definitely hard to deal with, but you can't focus on what other people say. I know the type of talent I have, and I can't get frustrated. I have to go out there and play like I know how to play."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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