BOURBONNAIS — When most people talk about the evolution of the Bears’ offense in Year 2 under Marc Trestman, they zero in on Jay Cutler and the passing game.
But running back Matt Forte is coming off a career season — even if he doesn’t see it that way — and the team should have a better handle on what works well in the ground game with the starting offensive line returning intact.
Forte rushed for a career-high 1,339 yards last season — 101 more than he gained as a rookie in 2008, when he had 27 more carries. With a career-high 74 receptions for 594 yards, Forte was third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, trailing only LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles. The performance triggered a $400,000 escalator in his contract for this season.
“Best year?” Forte said. “Not really. I feel like it was a decent, above-average year knowing what this offense can do and the talent we have and it being new. This being our second year, we can definitely surpass what we did.
However Forte’s 2013 performance is described the two-time Pro Bowler wants to build off of it at 28, a critical age for players at his position. An ESPN report this spring showed that since 2001, running backs who have played at least four seasons began to decline after age 27. The average drop-off by 29 and 30 is steep.
But Forte has shown no signs of slowing, even though he’s third in the NFL in touches since 2008 with 1,892 (1,551 carries, 341 receptions). His burst is still there — he turned the corner with ease Friday during the first practice of training camp.
At a position notorious for grinding up players and spitting them out in short order, Forte is still a main cog in an offense that now features big-time options in the passing game. He’s meticulous in preparation and works routinely with a physical therapist to keep his body tuned to avoid injuries.
“Playing this long, you know what the routine is,” Forte said. “You know what to do and how to do it.”
He uses dry needles, similar to acupuncture, and Graston Technique, in which stainless-steel tools massage the skin to break down scar tissue from lifting and running. It’s a constant process in the offseason, and he does his best to maintain a regimen during the season.
Forte is so durable and multidimensional that four offensive regimes (Ron Turner, Mike Martz, Mike Tice and Trestman) have struggled to give others playing time. Backup Michael Bush carried only 63 times last season, the fewest for a No. 2 Bears running back since Kahlil Bell had 40 rushes in 2009.
“It’s hard to take Matt off the field, but for the best interests of the team we should take him off a little bit and get him rested,” offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “You say, ‘Next drive we are going to take him out.’ And you look at him on the sideline and he doesn’t look tired, so it is hard to take him out.
“Every time we talked about it last year, he would come over and look fresh as can be and we put him back in.”
Trestman described Forte as the guy “taking notes in meetings.”
“We continue to ask ourselves, ‘How can we help him? How can we find plays that allow him to use his talents?'” Trestman said. “We’re working in that direction.”
Forte is signed for the next two years. He can earn up to $6.9 million this season, with $850,000 tied to per-game roster bonuses, and a maximum of $7.8 million in 2015.
Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, also 28, didn’t show for the start of training camp as he seeks an upgrade to his contract. He has two years and $13 million remaining. Lynch has played seven seasons, one more than Forte, but has only 63 more touches.
Charles, 27, was delayed getting to camp as he hammered out a reworked deal with the Chiefs. Lynch and Charles know their window for prime earning is closing fast.
This isn’t to suggest a holdout is in Forte’s future but to underscore he’s at a critical juncture of his career.
“I want to break the stereotype of old running backs going downhill,” he said. “This offseason I feel better than I have the past five or six offseasons. I got my rest and I know how to take care of my body now.
“Yeah, it is going to be harder and harder every year, but as long as you continue to have your set routine and stick to it, and a lot of prayer too, that helps a lot. Health is the main deal.”