LAKE FOREST, Ill. — For eight years, Matt Forte was known as the “Workhorse” around Halas Hall, a title that not only represented the heavy load he carried on the field, but also his hard work off the field.
Forte left Chicago last winter as the NFL’s active leader in yards per scrimmage since 2008, the year he was drafted. And in a symbolic gesture, Forte left his worn out “Workhorse 22” cutoff t-shirt hanging in his locker at Halas Hall.
It was time for a new workhorse to emerge.
But without Forte, the Bears’ running back situation is much different this year. There are three young running backs on the roster. Their average age is 23. Their average draft slot is 124th overall.
The Bears decided to replace Forte by committee — a strategy used by head coach John Fox in both Carolina and Denver earlier in his career — but through eight games, the “committee” approach hasn’t been fully utilized, mainly because of injuries. Second-year back Jeremy Langford was the No. 1 guy to start the season, but he missed five games because of an ankle sprain. Third-year back Ka’Deem Carey also missed two games during the same stretch because of a concussion, forcing fifth-round rookie Jordan Howard to carry the load. Much to the delight of the coaching staff, Howard emerged as a capable back, piling up 505 yards on 99 carries this season, a 5.1 yards per carry average.
“You don’t have Matt Forte who was the Workhorse, the No. 1 back,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains told WGN Radio this week. “We keep saying ‘running back by committee,’ well Jordan has been the workhorse the last five weeks, but we’re getting (Langford) back healthy and the carries — however it works out — could end up balancing out a little bit.”
Yes, fresh off the bye, the Bears’ running backs are the healthiest they’ve been since Week 2. And back then, they didn’t know yet that Howard could actually play. Thus, this is really the first week all season that Loggains has the opportunity to deploy a full committee of running backs when the Bears visit Tampa on Sunday.
But how does a running back committee actually work? How do the coaches decide which one should be on the field? Given that this approach is somewhat of a foreign concept in Chicago after eight years of Matt Forte, here’s a deep look into what components decide how the running backs are used in a given week:
Head coach John Fox ultimately has finally veto power, but the running back committee is mainly handled by both Loggains and running backs coach Stan Drayton. In fact, on game day, it’s usually Drayton who decides which running back is in the game.
“Dowell doesn’t have time. He gives me the green light to do that,” Drayton said.
The two coaches had never worked together before last season, but they developed trust quickly, even though Loggains was the quarterbacks coach at the time. Drayton had the same responsibility with the running backs when Adam Gase was the coordinator and Loggains didn’t change anything when he got promoted.
“The real challenge comes on game day and feeling who’s got the hot hand and who doesn’t,” Loggains said. “I think that’s where really good running back coaches like Coach Drayton have a really good feel for his guys.”
Drayton’s job was a little easier when Forte was carrying the load, but the challenge of deploying the right running back in the right situation is now greater.
Like any other position grouping, the coaches scheme against their opponent and determine the best matchup.
“You have to give the other side of the ball a little bit of credit in respect to what they are defensively,” Drayton said. “Are they a downhill, smash-mouth defense or are they a sideline-to-sideline, athletic, finesse, extremely fast defense? I think I’m gaining a better understanding of who plays well given the style of defense that we’re facing that week, so it can change.”
There are also certain plays each week that get tied to a particular running back. Langford might be able to run a wheel route better than the other backs. Howard might look the most comfortable on outside zone plays. Or maybe Carey’s willingness to block is needed on a key third-down passing situation.
“We definitely have plays that are tagged for each guy,” Loggains said.
In fact, the offensive coordinator said he’ll hold onto plays throughout the game until Drayton makes a switch and has a different running back on the field.
“If there’s a specific play that I want a particular back in, then we may have to personnel that with his name on it,” Drayton said. “We have to do something special like that. Or, if there’s a situation, for example, third down, whether it’s us throwing the football or in protection mode, there’s a back made for that moment. Or a two-minute situation — who’s that back? So it’s either by situation or by play.”
Pass protection is especially important and something the coaches watch very closely during the week of practice.
“Third down, low-red area when you’re going to get more pressure — obviously we’ll look at who has had the best week in pass protection and that will play into those situations,” Loggains added.
Game plans tend to change quickly in the NFL. Defenses adjust and the coaches have to adjust back.
“I think early on you always start off with an initial plan, but it’s kind of like how the game goes, everything changes,” Loggains said. “Sometimes it’s a game where you gotta throw it 40 times. Sometimes it’s a game where you’re able to get 30 to 40 runs called.”
Or sometimes your starting quarterback — who’s actually your backup — gets hurt in the second quarter and the third-stringer has to go in. That’s what happened to the Bears Oct. 20 in Green Bay when Brian Hoyer broke his arm. And the change under center also resulted in a change in the backfield.
“In the Green Bay game, a couple series we were downhill, downhill, and we felt like Ka’Deem Carey would be a nice change of pace when (Matt) Barkley went into the game,” Loggains said.
Drayton, who is stationed on the field during games, radioed up to Loggains in the booth and the change was made. Carey had received a few carries up to that point in the game, but it was Howard who was the designated lead-back in the first 20 minutes.
But on the first play from scrimmage with Barkley under center, Carey ran outside to the right and picked up a quick 24 yards.
“During the course of the game, if there’s just a full-flow of just play-calling, I gotta go with the hot foot,” Drayton said.
So Carey ended up with the bulk of the carries the rest of the way. With the Bears falling behind in the second half against the Packers, neither running back ended up carrying a huge workload, but Carey did end up with 10 rushes (48 yards) to Howard’s seven (22 yards).
All three Bears running backs were middle-round draft picks, but all three have proven that they can play. Will any of them end up with a career like Forte? That remains to be seen, but despite the injuries this season, the Bears’ stable of young running backs has proven to be good enough.
“The one thing that’s beautiful about that committee is that they’re all different,” Drayton said. “They all bring something different to the table in their running style, and in all phases of running back play, so if we ever feel a guy is struggling in an area, we can do a much better job and get the right guy in on certain situations and we’ll be fine.”
All three have different strengths, but none have glaring weaknesses either, making them somewhat interchangeable. Carey, for instance, is known as the change-of-pace back, but he’s not afraid of contact. In fact, he seeks it out.
“He has some suddenness, but the one thing is — he does hit it downhill hard,” Loggains said.
Howard, meanwhile, is a big, powerful running back who lacks breakaway speed, but has proven to be much more than a between-the-tackles runner.
“Sometimes the misconception with Jordan is, because he’s a big back, that he’s a downhill runner, but Jordan is a really good outside zone runner and that’s where he starts to stretch the defense and make his cuts,” Loggains said.
The offensive coordinator previously had a one-two punch of Chris Johnson and LenDale White when he was the OC in Tennessee and while he might not have an obvious Chris Johnson-type player yet, he thinks he has his LenDale White.
“(Howard’s) got really good vision. And LenDale White was that way,” Loggains said. “He was a big back, but he was a good zone runner because he had good vision and good feet and that’s kind of how Jordan is.”
Maybe the biggest question is how Langford fits in now. The former Michigan State running back was impressive as a rookie when he filled in for Forte for three games in the middle of the season — enough so that he earned double-digit carries in nine of the Bears’ final 10 games, an indication that the team was going to move on from Forte. In theory, Langford was supposed to become the new workhorse, but that was before the team drafted Howard in the spring.
“The thought process has flipped because going into it, Jeremy was the workhorse, or he was going to be the guy that started every week because we didn’t know as much about Jordan and Jordan wasn’t ready to play,” Loggains admitted. “And now, Jordan has had those nine weeks to learn the league, to see different defenses and different blitzes and different fronts. He’s starting to understand all the run schemes that differ from the NFL and college. Now Jordan’s got the hot hand. And obviously Jeremy has been down for a little while so he’s back up. So the challenge will become greater for Coach Drayton and myself to feel who’s got the hot hand and mix them with Ka’Deem.”
Take that as an indication that Langford hasn’t been forgotten. In fact, now that he’s healthy again, the competition is just starting to heat up.
“They control the depth chart,” Loggains said. “You have the opportunity to control how many carries you get with your play. So it is the ultimate competition because it’s ongoing even during a game.”
And thus, the most important component of the running back committee is the most obvious one.
“Production,” Drayton said. “That overrules everything.”