Matt Forte is gone, so give the ball to ... what's his name?
CHICAGO — The starting job was up for grabs this offseason, and the Bears’ four running backs each had an opportunity to make it his. They all handled Chicago’s most scrutinized position battle by acting…. as civilly as possible.
Ka’Deem Carey, Jordan Howard, Jeremy Langford and Jacquizz Rodgers spent the summer giving each other tips on how to get better on the field, and then hitting the bowling alley together after practice. Sure, bowling inspired some friendly wagers, with the loser picking up the tab for food. “But if it was me, they usually took it easy and took care of the bill,” says Howard, a fifth-round rookie from Indiana. “I guess that’s what teammates do.”
The Bears made virtually no effort to re-sign Matt Forte, who has led the NFL in yards from scrimmage since 2008. Now 30, Forte is the second most productive back in Bears’ history, with 8,602 rushing yards and 4,116 receiving yards. He left Chicago in free agency and signed a three-year deal with the Jets, including $9 million in guaranteed money. The Bears’ front office declined to match, believing the roster had enough in-house talent move on.
Throughout his 13-year career, coach John Fox, has always favored a committee approach with his backs, which became the game plan in Chicago after the Bears failed to lure restricted free agent C.J. Anderson. Still, it was a gamble for general manager Ryan Pace.
Langford had a few standout moments as a rookie last season—his highlights include an 83-yard touchdown off a screen pass against the Rams—but the Michigan State product must work on finding open space more consistently. He averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, and 1.13 yards after contact (second worst in 2015 among all backs with at least 100 carries). Carey, a 2014 fourth-round pick, was at risk of being cut at this time last season. Rodgers, a veteran, is coming off a fractured arm that curtailed his season at five games last year. “Getting my shoulder back to full strength is the biggest thing,” Rodgers says. “But it feels so much better than when I started rehab.” Howard is a rookie, meaning, of course, that his adjustment to the NFL is an unknown. All these men vying for the job could, in theory, make for an awkward situation and head-over-the-shoulder paranoia in the locker room.
“It could be like that, but we’re really close,” says Carey, the longest-tenured running back in Chicago. “I know that sounds crazy but when one messes up, we tell the other what he did wrong. We pick each other up when we’re down.”
Though he’s gone, Forte is still having an impact on his protégés. Carey and Langford say they still text him, and Carey began trying Pilates, at the suggestion of Forte. “I just look at the way he got himself ready every single season, every single game,” Langford says. “That’s what it takes to make it eight years in this league, then that’s what I need to do.”
This offseason, the backs each prepared for new roles. Langford bulked up to endure a 16-game workload, and says he studied film of Chris Ivory, wanting to see how he reliably picks up a blitz and how he breaks tackles for extra yards. Carey cut his body fat from 6% to 3%, and worked on his juke moves for when he finds himself one-on-one with a safety.
Rodgers, however, is possibly the biggest surprise. While Langford shoulders most of the first-team reps early in the season, Rodgers has emerged as a third-down bruiser and leading candidate for the understudy role. Coaches have commented on the 26-year-old’s reliability, and he adds a dynamic that Forte was known for: Rodgers caught at least 52 passes for the Falcons in 2012 and 2013.
In recent years, the franchise has only had nostalgia to cling to, and parting ways with Forte was an unpopular move among the fan base. During one two-day stretch at training camp this summer, an informal count found the number of fans wearing Forte jerseys rivaled only by fans wearing Walter Payton jerseys. Both outnumbered any current player by almost a 2-to-1 margin.
On one particularly sticky afternoon in Bourbonnais, Ill., fans lined up for autographs as Carey approached.
“Jeremy, Jeremy, come here!” a young boy beckoned.
“That’s not Jeremy Langford,” the boy’s father corrected. “That’s the other guy.”
“Who?” the kid asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” said another man standing nearby. “None of them are Forte.”
Soon enough, and when it matters most, their friendship will be tested like never before.
Five Things I Think About the Bears
1. Leonard Floyd has the potential to be a beast. First thing out of the way: his weight. Floyd, who has struggled to add pounds, has been on an eat-anything-you-want-as-much-as-you-want diet (tough life, right?). He told me he put on five to six pounds since the draft. I asked him if he’s sick of everyone talking about the scale. “No, because I get it,” he said. “It’s the biggest question mark about me. Because once I figure that out…” I’ll finish the sentence here: he can be the next great Bears linebacker. Watching Floyd you can’t help but notice how quick he is. He can use his length to fend off blockers, and has incredible athleticism and burst. “You notice I’m fast, right?” Floyd said when I mentioned being impressed by his quickness. “My speed is my best asset and I’m going to use that.” I am curious what his production will be this season, though. I could see the Bears using him in a situational role as he eases into the NFL.
2. Two other rookies have stood out at camp: third-round defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard, and seventh-round wideout Daniel Braverman. Bullard, a disruptive tackler, has an opportunity to start this season. Meanwhile Braverman, the against-all-odds slot receiver from Western Michigan, has become a fan favorite and has a legitimate chance to make the roster. He’s tough, with catch-and-go quickness, and could also return punts.
3. Jerrell Freeman is an overachieving linebacker who spent three seasons in the CFL before flourishing with the Colts. He is above average in pass coverage and, combined with Danny Trevathan, creates a playmaking pair coordinators must game plan against. He was a smart pickup in free agency.
4. I am worried about the Bears’ offensive line, specifically who is snapping the ball to Jay Cutler. With Grasu out for the season, the team promoted Ted Larsen to first-string center. The seventh-year veteran, signed as a free agent in March, needs some work. Larsen had been working at right guard and hasn’t played center in the regular season since 2012, when he was with the Buccaneers.
5. I believe the Bears made the right call in promoting quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains to offensive coordinator. This keeps continuity for Cutler, who made great strides last season in an offense that Gase specifically catered to the quarterback, focusing on disciplined decision-making. The biggest issue is whether Loggains can call plays, and we won’t know that until Week 1.
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