Matt Forte -- is he worth the long-term commitment?
Through the Chicago Bears' first 12 games of the 2011-12 NFL season, running back Matt Forte rushed for 997 yards and notched 490 receiving yards. The Bears offense had 3,910 total yards at that point in the season.
For all of you non-math geeks out there, this means that Forte consisted of 38 percent of Chicago's total offense before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Kansas City.
Can Chicago thrive with the looming possibility of losing a player that contributes to 38 percent of the team's total offense?
Yes, it could.
Bears fans, hear me out before you show up at my door with torches and pitchforks.
Forte is an electric, one-of-a-kind back that has the toughness to gain yards between the tackles and the speed to create mismatches in the passing game.
However, he can be replaced.
Chicago can learn a lesson from the great Billy Beane. In Moneyball, Beane was faced with the task of replacing the offensive output of Jason Giambi. Instead of finding one player to fill the void, Beane searched for a collection of players that could equally produce the same amount of runs Giambi contributed to the team.
Matt Forte needed 203 carries and 52 catches to reach his aforementioned yardage totals. He led the Bears in both categories at the end of the season, despite missing the final four games.
Do the Bears have enough talent to make the playoffs if they lost Matt Forte?
Forte averaged 83.1 rushing yards on 17 attempts and 40.8 receiving yards on 4.3 catches per game. If he finished the season at this pace, he would have wound up with 1,329 yards in 271 rushing attempts and with 653 yards on 69 receptions.
Let's start with the running game. The Bears controversially added Michael Bush to the backfield, and Forte could not hold in his frustration with the Chicago front office any longer. Bush had a breakout year in Oakland, collecting 977 yards on the ground and 418 yards receiving.
Kahlil Bell was an effective replacement after Forte sprained his MCL, rushing for 121 yards at Green Bay on Christmas night. Marion Barber, despite his crucial late-game mistakes against Denver, also ran for more than 100 yards in Forte's absence (in that same game against the Broncos, no less).
The Bush-Bell duo is more than capable of contributing to the Bears' rushing attack in the same manner that Forte, and even Barber, did. If Bush received 250 carries and Bell received 75, and both players averaged 4.0 yards per carry, it would give Chicago 1,300 yards on the ground. Forte and Barber combined for 1,419 yards on 317 carries.
Bush and Bell's theoretical output is comparable to that of Forte and Barber, but Chicago would have to do more damage through the air to make up the difference.
In the passing game, Bush and Bell would have a difficult task replicating Forte's ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Bell, however, did show flashes of his receiving talent by collecting 105 yards and a touchdown on 14 catches. Bush also had 418 receiving yards last season.
Still, Forte is as dangerous as any back in the NFL at catching the ball out of the backfield. Bush and Bell simply do not have the talent to match that.
Enter Brandon Marshall.
With the addition of Marshall, Chicago landed a big-time wide receiver that can carry an offense on his back. He will most likely replace Roy Williams in the Bears' receiving corps.
Williams had 447 yards receiving last year. Forte, if he had played 16 games, would have ended up at 653 yards (based on his 12-game averages). In total, that is 1,100 receiving yards.
If Bush and Bell combined to produce 400 yards for quarterback Jay Cutler in the passing game, is it reasonable to assume Marshall would have at least 700 receiving yards to cover the difference? Considering Marshall has five straight seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards, those seem like pretty good odds.
In addition, with Mike Tice replacing Mike Martz as offensive coordinator, expect to see more action from tight end Kellen Davis.
Martz's system didn't utilize the tight end position in the passing game, which is why Chicago traded former first-round pick Greg Olsen last July. Tice will do a better job at making sure Cutler spreads the ball around, and Davis will be more than just a red zone threat this season.
Collectively, the Bears have enough talent to neutralize the loss of Matt Forte. However, with most of the locker room putting its faith behind the Pro Bowl back, losing him would be detrimental to the team's chemistry.
At the end of the day, the NFL is still a business. From a business perspective, the Bears could lose Forte and still contend in the NFC.