By Robert Zeglinski
When you think of the Bears and their relative franchise history, cliché knowledge of grit and toughness comes to mind. A lot of that “character” has been embodied in who has starred in the offensive backfield.
For all of the constant quarterback dilemmas (Jay Cutler is not one for the record), this organization has rarely had a dearth of talent at running back. From Red Grange and Gale Sayers to Walter Payton and Thomas Jones, Chicago has always had someone they could rely on in the running game and more.
Most recently, that star workhorse was Matt Forte, who by most accounts, vaulted himself into the top two or three in franchise history as a back, which speaks volumes of his status. In Forte’s incredibly productive eight seasons on the lakefront, the Bears consistently ranked in the bottom third offensively in the league, with the 2013 season’s 8th ranked offense looking like a complete fluke. In totality, Forte on average accounted for 40 percent of Chicago’s mediocre attack, so it can’t be overstated just how important the 30-year-old was to an offense that already struggled.
If we’re being extra harsh, he was really the only consistent star player and dynamo the franchise has been able to rely on in recent memory long term.
It isn’t so easy to replace elite production or versatility in that fashion, but in moving on from a player likely on a downhill slope (the newly minted New York Jet appeared in just 13 games in 2015 and was well under 1,500 yards of total offense for the first time since 2012), Chicago will have to find someone else to fill the gap.
Last year’s rookie sensation, Jeremy Langford, sure seems to be able to fit the receiving and running mold the Bears offense requires, but many have expressed skepticism as to whether he can dutifully be that man. Most of that skepticism is healthy and most of it comes from the Bears themselves.
Running backs coach Stan Drayton was quoted as saying “Not one can do all that Matt brought to the table” when in reference in to the positional dilemma facing Chicago posing an interesting question. As is per head coach John Fox’s tradition based off of his career (his coaching stops in Denver and Carolina featured multiple backs), the Bears look to start the year on a running back by committee approach as sources like the Chicago Tribune have recently reported, which is curious but mandates a look at the candidates.
As mentioned, the obvious guy to take the Forte role is Langford.
Langford will be just a second year player, who showed tremendous explosiveness and promise in his rookie season, producing 816 yards of offense in 170 touches. You do the math and that translates to 4.8 yards per touch, which is elite level performance for someone in the backfield, even by the Bears’ standards. There were of course growing pains for Langford such as a crucial dropped pass late in a close loss to Minnesota at Soldier Field last year, but it’s not like the mistake became a crutch or habit.
It would be supremely misguided to think Langford couldn’t grab the featured role by the horns given a full opportunity. After the playmaking he displayed against the Rams or Chargers in wins (80 yard touchdowns and acrobatic catches bring their own level of excitement), you would be hard-pressed to argue that he isn’t the favorite barring a setback. Of all the options, Langford is really the only one who could handle receiving out of the backfield as well given his skillset, with the Bears preferring versatility at a premium.
The only caveat with Langford would be his late season slump, but that was a product of Chicago taking away touches to attempt every option more than anything. It would be a moderate shock if Langford isn’t fully entrenched as the number one option by at least midseason.
Next in line, comes Ka’Deem Carey.
Carey has always been an interesting case study, because he was drafted by the failed Emery-Trestman regime. He wasn’t a selection of the newly pointed Ryan Pace Bears, so it was difficult to figure whether he would be in any kind of positive light or plans with Fox and Pace.
Concrete answers were given however, when Carey began to take goal line carries come late October of last year and when he even began to supplant Langford and Forte in the line of succession in late game moments. He showed excellent burst and straight line presence that was a fantastic stylistic change of pace from Langford and Forte’s general shiftiness. Carey’s total numbers didn’t flash either, because like his young backfield counterpart, Carey received less opportunity come late season.
This is where the dividing line appears and where people begin comparisons to the Chicago John Fox to the Carolina and Denver versions.
Chicago spent a 2016 fifth-round pick on one of the Big Ten’s leading rushers in Jordan Howard because they aren’t sure where they stand at running back as all of the late season play and recent reports confirm. Howard himself could be an excellent top option with seasoning as he’s another highly qualified player with pedigree and power that doesn’t mess around with his carries once he sees an opening.
Yet it’s far more likely he’s used as a pure trade off of strength pace in relation to Langford or Carey, so one of these three men will probably be the odd man out once the dust settles. However, you can be assured it won’t be good, bad, or ugly.
Finally, if we go with an underrated but lingering thought, maybe the Bears truly do run with the back by committee approach distributed evenly.
There’s been a lot of conversation surrounding better offensive balance for this organization to compete at a championship level and one of those facets would move away from a player accounting for almost half of your offense. In fact, it’s a rarity that you see a true feature back in the modern NFL anymore with team success.
Guys like Adrian Peterson in Minnesota and the retired Marshawn Lynch in Seattle are becoming relics of the past. Top balanced offenses scoring and yardage-wise like Carolina, Arizona and New England last year, focused more on spreading around who gets carries and touches, not necessarily maximizing all efforts on one guy. It’s a nuanced way of thinking that has built its own reproach in a constantly evolving league.
With that respect, maybe it’s best the Bears finally join the trendsetters.
Given how every bit of information that comes out of Halas Hall these days is treated like an international trade secret, we won’t truly know who the Bears favor on an individual level until someone snatches the backfield by force in-season. Whether it’s Langford, Carey, Howard, or a mix of the trio, one gets the sense that on some level the Chicago running back standard will still prosper.
Like any family will tell you, traditions don’t change completely without risk.
When it comes to the Bears running backs, that risk may just allow for an evolution for the better.