Matt Forte's accomplishments with the Chicago Bears over the past several years have been unmatched in the NFL. That's because he has achieved All-Pro status with the worst surrounding cast of offensive players of any top back.
Look at the 2012 All-Pro team:
- Running back Frank Gore is joined on the team by teammate tackle Joe Staley
- LeSean McCoy is joined by by teammate tackle Jason Peters
- Marshawn Lynch is joined by teammate fullback Michael Robinson
- Ray Rice is joined by teammates guards Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda
- Arian Foster is joined by teammate center Chris Myers
- Ryan Mathews is joined by teammates Antonio Gates, Philip Rivers and former Charger Vincent Jackson
Denver Broncos running back Willis McGahee thrived with All-Pro tackle Ryan Clady in front of him, and revitalized Miami Dolphin Reggie Bush reaped the benefit of playing with All-Pros Jake Long at tackle and wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
There used to be an old adage about NFL success that a team needs a good running game to establish a passing one. With the recent new rules favoring the passing game, that adage has been reversed: A club now needs a good passing game to establish its running game. Without an effective passing game a team's opponent can load eight men in the box and strangle the running attack.
In 2011, seven of the 12 worst rushing teams, 58 percent, had starting quarterbacks who put up ratings less than 80.0, a threshold that separates good quarterbacks from average ones.
Only five of the top 20 rushing teams, 25 percent, had quarterbacks who had ratings less than 80, and two of these teams were odd exceptions—Denver with Tim Tebow and Minnesota with Christian Ponder.
I bring this up because of a startling discovery I recently made. It is quite unusual for a team to win when its quarterback plays a game with a sub-80 rating. And Matt Forte has carried the Bears to victory in more such games than any other comparable star running back.
On October 2nd, 2011, in a 34-29 victory versus the Carolina Panthers, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler produced a weak 46.7 rating on only nine completions for 102 yards, while Forte rushed for 205 yards including a 46-yarder and a 17-yard touchdown for a 17-10 lead.
In a 24-18 road win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on October 23rd, Cutler generated only a 60.2 rating with two interceptions, while Forte rushed for 145 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead.
In Chicago's 37-13 win versus the Detroit Lions on November 13th, Cutler played a 68.5 rating game with only nine completions. Forte rushed for 64 yards including a 40-yard run, as well as a 6-yard TD run for a 7-0 lead.
That's three games in a six-week stretch where Forte carried the offense nearly singlehandedly. A more conventional victory would be the Bears' October 16th route of the Minnesota Vikings, 39-10, because Cutler excelled with a 115.9 rating and that enabled Forte to rush for 87 yards on 17 carries—a 5.1 average.
Now flash back to the Bears' game at Carolina on October 10th of 2010. Chicago was coming off an opening game defeat, and they were forced to play Todd Collins at quarterback. He proceeds to play one of the worst games in history, amassing a startlingly low rating of 6.3 on only six completions in 16 attempts, for a mere 32 yards with four interceptions. Yet, the Bears win 23-6, primarily because Forte rushes for 166 yards and two touchdowns, the first an 18-yard run for a 7-0 lead, and then a 68-yard run for a 14-3 lead.
Scroll forward to Chicago's November 18th game at Miami that same year. Culter played a pedestrian game with a 64.8 rating, completing 16 passes for only 156 yards with a pick. Yet again, Chicago wins, 16-0, because Forte does yeoman's work. He gains 97 yards, including a touchdown, and helps the Bears control the ball nearly 38 minutes, with a whopping 19-10 advantage in first downs.
Forte carried the Bears to another victory, November 1st, 2009, against Cleveland Browns, a game in which Cutler produced only a 66.7 rating. Forte's 90 yards and two TDs spurred the 30-6 victory. The Bears controlled the ball more than 37 minutes and had a 20-9 edge in first downs.
Forte spearheaded a November 2nd, 2008 win versus Detroit by rushing for 126 yards, on a day when Rex Grossman suffered through a 47.9 rating with only eight completions for a mere 56 yards and an interception.
And there is the December 22nd, 2008 overtime win versus the Green Bay Packers in which Forte's late fourth-quarter touchdown tied the game. On this date he "rescued" the Bears and their quarterback du jour, Kyle Orton, who played a 48.7 rating game with two interceptions.
So, that's three rescues in 2011, two in 2010, one in 2009 and two in 2008, for a sum of eight in his mere 60 career starts.
To put this achievement in perspective, let's compare Forte to Michael Bush, the running back the Bears have acquired as insurance in the event that Forte is a 2012 holdout. Bush has certainly played with some questionable quarterbacks, such as JaMarcus Russell and Jason Campbell; however, except for his first pro game back on September 14th, 2008, he has never carried a team to victory.
Bush's career highlights include outstanding games in wins December 28th, 2008 (Russell has 98.9 rating), December 20th, 2009 (Russell has 88.1 rating), October 10th, 2010 (Campbell has 112.6 rating), December 5th, 2010 (Campbell has 105.5 rating) and January 2nd, 2011 (Campbell has 91.2 rating). This past season, Bush excelled in two victories: November 10th, when Carson Palmer attained a 125.0 rating, and again on November 20th, when Palmer posted a 107.9 mark.
So, Bush is a nice complementary back, but he is not a difference maker.
Let's compare Forte to some of the other backs one might consider difference makers.
Ray Rice has thrived in the stability that the Baltimore Ravens have achieved with steady Joe Flacco at quarterback. Rice, too, carried the Ravens to but two victories—December 4th and December 24th, both against Cleveland. The previous season, he had only one rescue, on January 2nd, 2011.
Arian Foster emerged as a top running back in conjunction with the blossoming of Matt Schaub at quarterback. Only once in 2011 did Foster rescue the Houston Texans from a poor Schaub performance—a November 6th, 2011 win versus Cleveland.
The Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson's 2010 season is most revealing. He was cited as the 13th-best player that year in the NFL Network's survey of players. And, yet, that season he carried the team to zero wins! The Titans did go 6-4 in the games where their quarterbacks produced a 90.0 rating or better, and Johnson rushed for 100 or more yards in seven of those 10 games. However, in the six games that the Titans suffered terrible quarterback play with ratings of 65 or less, the team went 0-6, and Johnson attained 100 yards in only one of those games. Johnson could not overcome the debacles that Vince Young and Kerry Collins had.
Steven Jackson carried the St. Louis Rams to wins only once in 2010 (December 5th) and twice in 2011 (October 13th and November 11th). Maurice Jones-Drew also produced only one rescue win in 2010 (November 21st) but three in 2011 (October 24th, November 13th, December 11th).
The Bears are hoping new receiver Brandon Marshall and the recovery of 2011 first-round draft selection tackle Gabe Carimi will stabilize the offense. And, yet, without Forte, it is hard to imagine that Cutler will be able to get Marshall the ball. Yes, an overlooked part of Forte's game is his willingness to pass protect. Last year, in Cutler's 10 starts, he sustained only 23 sacks— 2.3 per game—with Forte as his starting back.
To put that 2.3 in perspective, it was 3.6 for Sam Bradford, 3.33 for Kevin Kolb, 2.8 for Tavaris Jackson, 2.77 for Matt Moore, 2.75 for Alex Smith, 2.73 for Christian Ponder, 2.67 for Blaine Gabbert and Ben Roethlisberger, 2.46 for Colt McCoy, 2.44 for Mark Sanchez, 2.4 for Aaron Rodgers and 2.36 for Tim Tebow.
But even more striking and alarming to Bears fans should be comparing those 2.3 sacks per game that Cutler suffered to the nearly doubled 4.4 sacks per game that Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown took when Forte went out injured. Examination of a couple of Bears late-season box scores revealed sack breakdowns the likes of which I have never seen.
The10-3 loss to Kansas City on December 4th is the game in which Forte was injured early. The last five Bears drives in late third quarter through the end of the game were each "low-lighted" by at least one sack and there were seven sacks of Hanie in the last 18 minutes of the game.
In the January 1st, 2012 game against the Vikings, it was McCown's turn to get pounded. From the second quarter on, he was sacked on six consecutive possessions, fumbled a couple of times in the game and then capped off his day by throwing an interception.
Now, Michael Bush has a good reputation as a pass-blocking back and will be a good addition to the backfield if indeed the Bears sign Forte to the extension he wants. But it is delusional to think that Chicago can compete with powerhouses Green Bay and Detroit without him. I look for them to slump to 5-11 in 2012 without Matt Forte.