The Bears lost more than a game in the standings when they careened off a cliff in Green Bay last week.
Quarterback Jay Cutler lost his cool, he lost his trust in the team’s offensive line, and, in turn, he lost the loyalty of at least one of his teammates. He certainly lost the confidence of many Bears fans. The team as a whole lost its swagger, and Dave Toub—at least temporarily—lost his title as the NFL’s best special teams coach. By failing to show up for the game’s first 50 minutes, Brandon Marshall lost his title as Best Wide Receiver Chicago Has Ever Seen, a title he held for…a week.
But lost in the swirling maelstrom of Cutler’s shove of J’Marcus Webb, his half-assed apology, and doctored photos of the grumpy QB smokin’ cigs is last Thursday’s biggest loss: Matt Forte. Forte hurt his right ankle in the third quarter and was forced out of the game, and while the injury was initially thought to be a high ankle sprain, which would have sidelined the back for a month or more, further tests showed it is might not that serious, though his status for Sunday remains unknown.
Forte may very well be back by Week 4, but if he misses Week 3, that makes seven of the last eight Bears games Forte hasn’t finished or played a down in. In a league in which running backs have shorter shelf lives than pop stars, how can that not raise a red flag or two?
Consider how important he is to the offense. Forte is not only the key to the team’s rushing attack, he’s also a terrific receiver, an effective blocker for Cutler, and one of the only universally respected leaders on the offensive side of the ball. Over the past four seasons, since he was drafted in the second round out of Tulane, he has been the catalyst of the Chicago offense and one of the best players in the league at his position. The numbers speak for themselves (courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com):
But the most important number is victories. The team went 1-3 when he missed time in 2011 with an MCL sprain and 1-4 if you count the game in which he was injured early in the first quarter; they also lost to the Packers last Thursday in the game in which he was hurt. During his career, Forte has surpassed 100 rushing yards 12 times, and the Bears are 11-1 in those games. When Forte has been a forgotten man in the game plan and received 12 or fewer carries in a game, Chicago is 4-13.
Last spring, the Bears turned some heads when they signed running back Michael Bush to a four-year, $14 million contract. One of those heads belonged to Forte, who at the time was looking for a long-term deal from the organization and was upset that for the fourth time in as many years, the Bears had signed a veteran backup while not paying him what he thought he deserved. He took to Twitter:
There’s only so many times a man that has done everything he’s been asked to do can be disrespected! Guess the GOOD GUYS do finish last….
— Matt Forte (@MattForte22) March 22, 2012
If Forte sits, Bush will take his place in the starting lineup this week, though don’t expect him to fill all of Forte’s roles—on Sunday or at any point in the season. Bush is a 245-pound steamroller who rarely breaks off long runs (although he seldom gets taken down by just one defender). The Bears didn’t sign him to be a workhorse or a featured back. They signed him to vulture touchdowns at the goal line and spell their All-Pro.
Cutler’s pouty face and strong arm may get all the attention, but it is Forte who leads the Bears offense when it is effective. Thursday night reminded us of Cutler’s and the passing game’s fallibility. If Charles Woodson is right that this is the “same old Jay,” it means the Bears offense is only as good as Matt Forte.
STORY ART: Forte photo courtesy Monica’s Dad/cc.