LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Bears head coach Lovie Smith is fond of saying his team gets off the bus running the football, but last season the only fitting analogy would have conjured up a bus stop, because the Chicago running game went nowhere in 2009. The glaring facts were these:
• The Matt Forte-led rushing attack ranked 29th in the league, with 93.2 yards per game. Only three teams in the NFL ran it fewer times than Chicago's 23.3 rushes per game; just one had less than the Bears' 71 rushing first downs; and only two clubs produced fewer than Chicago's six touchdowns on the ground. The Bears' 373 rushes were Chicago's least in any non-strike year since 1971, when the 14-game regular season still held.
• With new quarterback Jay Cutler hailed as the franchise's savior last season, the strong-armed ex-Bronco wound up throwing 555 times, the most pass attempts by any QB in Chicago history. He was perfectly average, with 27 touchdowns, 26 interceptions and a 76.8 passer rating. Little wonder the Bears finished likewise, at 7-9, good for third place in the NFC North.
So the notion that Chicago, at its core, was still a running team was pure fallacy, right up there along the lines of the Bears defense still being one of the more feared and dominating units in the league. The reality simply no longer supported the perception.
Determined to address its deficiency on the ground, Chicago went to work this offseason. The Bears signed one of the NFL's best No. 2 backs away from division rival Minnesota in Chester Taylor, lured 300-pound blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna from San Diego with even more big money, made changes to its struggling offensive line and hired veteran offensive line coach Mike Tice, who made his reputation in Minnesota in the '90s leading the Vikings' Pro Bowl-studded O-line.
They're all good moves on paper, but the offense will undoubtedly still be built around Cutler in the quarterback-rich NFC North. And don't forget about new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who fairly or unfairly has been accused at times of giving short shrift to his team's running game in favor of his affection for the forward pass.
It all makes you wonder whether the Bears offense will have an identity crisis of sorts in what shapes up as Smith's make-or-break season. The investment has been substantial for both the passing and running games the past two offseasons, and Chicago is clearly desperate for more balance. The plan/hope is for less to equal more in the passing game and for Taylor and Forte to combine to revitalize the running game, giving Chicago its own version of the two-man backfield that has become so popular in recent NFL seasons.
OK, I'm buying it for now, and when I checked in on the Bears during a Wednesday afternoon OTA workout at Halas Hall, they seemed to be intrigued by the possibilities this season for the revamped offense. But when the games start counting in September, where will the Bears' commitment on offense really lie? Will Smith's affinity for the running game and a power football philosophy win out, or will Martz's penchant to throw first and ask questions later re-surface? It should make for some fascinating theater.
"The emphasis level around here is always going to be on running the football,'' said veteran tight end Desmond Clark, who's entering his eighth season as a Bear and qualifies as one of the team's elder statesmen. "I think a lot of people are kind of looking at Mike Martz coming in and saying, 'How's that going to work?' But people also said he didn't like to use the tight end in the passing game and I can tell you that's been false from everything we've been doing out here.
"You can only judge a guy from what he does when you're with him, and [Martz] probably has never been with an organization like this one, where the head coach has as much emphasis on running the ball. So we've got to see what he does here. But I think we'll be a balanced offense. When you've got running backs like Matt and Chester, you can't help but run the ball. And you know they brought in Brandon for a reason, because we want to run the ball. Everything's lining up for us to run the ball as much as anyone else.''
The Bears prioritized signing Taylor away from the Vikings in early March because they realized they likely over-used Forte in his first two NFL seasons. As a rookie revelation in 2008, Forte carried 316 times for 1,238 yards and caught another 63 passes for 477 yards, totaling a team-high 12 touchdowns. But he just wasn't the same player last season, rushing for just 929 yards with a 3.6-yard average carry (down from 3.9 in '08), and seeing his touchdown total drop by 75 percent (four).
The reports on Forte so far this offseason have been good, with some Bears observers saying he seems to have his rookie-season speed and explosiveness back. Forte told me it was a matter of having some nagging injuries last season that never really allowed him to play at even 90 percent healthy. Though no one has spelled out exactly how Chicago plans to use Forte and Taylor in tandem, my sense is that Forte will start and Taylor will rotate in frequently. Taylor has played a complementary backfield role in Baltimore and Minnesota, and the Bears know his ego can handle whatever they ask of him.
"It's going to benefit us both, because we're both good backs and whoever we have in the game, we'll never miss a beat,'' said Taylor, who was Adrian Peterson's valuable understudy the past three years in Minnesota, after posting a 1,216-yard rushing season in his Vikings debut season of 2006. "Of all the offenses I've been in since I've been in the league (this is his ninth season), I believe I like this one the most because they use the back out of the backfield a lot more, catching the ball. I think it's going to be exciting in a Mike Martz offense. Somebody's going to always be open.''
As much as the Bears already threw to Forte in departed coordinator Ron Turner's offense, he was never more than the second or third option on any particular play. Not any more. On some plays he's the first option in the passing game, and Martz has always considered a gain on a four-yard swing pass to be every bit as good -- or even better, given the reduced contact -- as a four-yard carry.
"With Chester, what you have is a No. 1 back who has just been put in a No. 2 role because he had a great back in front of him,'' Clark said. "He's proven he can play that No. 1 role, and I don't think anyone around the league would doubt if Matt was out and Chester was in there that we'd still have a No. 1 back. You talk about depth and sometimes if you've got numbers, you can say you've got depth. But this is like real depth, because you don't lose anything when Chester is out there and Matt isn't. That's what depth is all about.''
However the balance of power works out on offense this season, it's a bottom-line kind of year in Chicago. When the Bears ownership debated and then decided to retain the tandem of Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo for 2010 -- and why take the potential risk of paying two head coaches and two general managers for not working in 2011? -- it became clear that a fourth consecutive non-playoff season on the heels of Chicago's 2006 Super Bowl run would mean curtains for the present regime.
Many believe the moves the Bears made this offseason were out of desperation. But players I talked to said it's more of a sense of urgency, because they know what's at stake this year.
"Of course you hear that all the time what this season means,'' Forte said. "I wouldn't say there's desperation, but urgency is a good word for it. The players know what's going on. But if you don't have that urgency any way, you're already on your way out in this league.''
Clark, entering his 12th season, said the Bears feel the pressure to perform this year, but they can't afford to become consumed with Smith's and Angelo's fate.
"We all know what we're up against,'' Clark said. "It's just the plain truth. Personally and everybody as an organization, we know with another losing season things might not look good for a lot of people. But we're not going to over-do it, thinking we have to do it, we have to do it.
"We're not going to go out here and bang our heads against the wall, thinking if we don't get it done, we're not going to be here. That's the difference between urgency and desperation in this league. We have to get it done just for the sake of getting it done, because we want to win a championship. If you win, all that other stuff takes care of itself.''
If the Bears win, that bus Lovie Smith likes to reference in regards to his running game will likely get rolling again. If they don't, it's almost a given that someone else will be driving it come 2011.