LAKE FOREST — Great running backs usually do not want to leave the field. Few have the unique skill sets and extraordinary conditioning to actually have those wishes granted by their coaches.
Matt Forte is that rare exception.
Forte, 28, in 2013 started all 16 games for the fourth time in six NFL campaigns, flourishing in Year One of the Marc Trestman offense by setting career highs in catches and total yards, while getting the most touches and touchdowns since his rookie season.
According to running backs coach Skip Peete, the thought of taking Forte off the field last season was almost cringe-worthy.
“We have a unique situation here where Matt is really unbelievable in all areas,” Peete told Chicago Football after the Bears’ first minicamp practice on Tuesday. “Extremely talented as a runner, very physical and knowledgeable as a pass protector, and then obviously has the ability to line up on pass routes.
“To take him off the field is really something you cringe at.”
Even more cringe-inducing is the thought of where the Bears would be without Forte. Nonetheless, Peete and the Bears have to cover all their bases, thus the drafting of Ka’Deem Carey and signings of veteran Shaun Draughn and undrafted rookies Jordan Lynch and Senorise Perry to compete with Michael Ford for the backup role.
“They’re all doing a very good job right now,” explained Peete, who said each back brings something different to the table and the onus on him and the coaching staff is maximizing the strengths and masking the weaknesses of each player.
Forte has been an ironman for the Bears, but Peete said the plan last season, his first in Chicago, was to spell Forte more often … but game situations and Forte’s tremendous production dictated otherwise. Peete wouldn’t say it, but the lack of a viable No. 2 option – Michael Bush struggled mightily, leading to his release – also forced Chicago’s hand.
“It’s interesting because, up until last year – pretty much my entire career – I was a multiple back guy,” he said.
Peete held the same position with the Cowboys from 2007-2012, when younger backs Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, among others, carved out roles. He was also part of then-offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s staff in Oakland, where Al Davis taught him the importance of keeping backs fresh through a rotation.
Rest assured, the Bears aren’t going to a running back by committee approach anytime soon. But Peete admits he has had conversations with Forte about prolonging the running back’s career by picking spots to spell him.
“Matt has to understand that his body only has so many hits in it, and you have to preserve that and put yourself in position where you can play as long as you can,” he said.
The onus on the running backs behind Forte – beyond the obvious: gaining positive yardage when they receive carries – is proving to Peete and the coaching staff that they have what it takes to keep Jay Cutler upright. Peete admitted it is the single most important criteria in the backup competition.
“Where the game has changed over the years is that the running backs now really have to be an extension of the offensive line," Peete said, "have the ability to sort out different looks within the defensive front and recognize the pressures and blitzes that the defense will present to you. … basically as a running back, you’re the last line of defense."
For now, during a period of the offseason in which gauging one’s physicality and willingness to stand up a blitzing linebacker is nearly impossible because of the restrictions on contact, Peete’s emphasis is on teaching the proper fundamentals and techniques. A little over a month from now, when the Bears put the pads on and the “bullets start flying” is when the fun really begins.
“I think it’s going to be a very exciting training camp to watch what all of these guys can do,” he said.