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Haugh: Forte forsaken, needs bigger role in offense

Published: Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 10:12 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — CHICAGO — Lost in Wednesday’s giggly revelation at Halas Hall that NFL players have been known to take Viagra for an edge was Brandon Marshall seriously embracing what gives the Bears offense its biggest boost.

“We understand that we are the focal points of the offense right now,” Marshall said. “We know that the offense goes through us, Jay (Cutler) being the quarterback obviously and me being the No. 1 receiver. But I guess that is why they pay us pretty good to make plays.”

The Bears pay running back Matt Forte pretty well too to make plays — $30.4 million over a four-year contract he signed last summer. Yet nobody in the room batted an eye when Marshall stated the obvious that the Bears offense “goes through” Cutler and him.

Nobody thought immediately, What about Forte? Nor did Marshall’s statement sound incomplete or egotistical. It merely reflected the new normal for the Bears in respect to their so-called franchise running back.

Matt Forgotten.

Forte practiced on a limited basis because of the right ankle he re-injured against the Vikings but concern surrounding his status for the Seahawks game bordered on perfunctory. If Marshall was gimpy enough to leave the previous game, we would call orthopedists all over the Midwest daily for projections. When Cutler goes down with an injury, Chicagoans often hear about it before traffic and weather. Forte?

“He’ll be fine,” offensive coordinator Mike Tice predicted after Wednesday’s practice.

Coach Lovie Smith wasn’t asked.

For the Bears to evolve fully into the Super Bowl contender they envision, Forte needs to be more than fine the final five games. The Bears need Forte to conjure up his own fourth-and-29 miracle conversion the way Ray Rice of the Ravens did. They need the third member of the Bears’ offensive triumvirate to keep up with Cutler and Marshall better than he has.

Nothing against right guard Lance Louis, the victim of a season-ending cheap shot from Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, but the biggest injury concern after last Sunday’s attrition should have surrounded Forte. Louis indeed has been the Bears’ best of a bad group of offensive linemen but teams rarely win or lose games based on whether the right guard plays.

Forte, in contrast, means more to the Bears’ overall outlook by design — at least he should. He should account for a larger piece of the offensive pie. Yet whether because of injury or opportunity, Forte has produced results lately that look more ordinary than elite.

Forte’s two 100-yard rushing games have come against the NFL’s 27th- and 29th-ranked run defenses — the Titans and Jaguars, respectively. In the Bears’ three losses, Forte has 44 carries for 133 yards.

In the last 16 regular-season games, the equivalent of a season in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, Forte has missed five games with two different injuries and rushed 163 times for 695 yards and three touchdowns. He has just 27 receptions for 184 yards in that span, largely because Tice’s offense doesn’t utilize backs in the passing game like Mike Martz’s did.

Backup running back Michael Bush’s numbers over the same 16-game span mirror Forte’s. Including the final five games of last year for the Raiders and the 2012 season, Bush has rushed 199 times for 675 yards and six touchdowns. Bush has 26 catches for 228 yards.

Some will consider the comparison unfair because Forte missed so much time with injuries, but that underscores the point. Durability issues Forte insisted he was immune to during contract negotiations indeed have plagued him in the first year of his new deal. For the Bears to stay in any Super Bowl conversations, Forte must stay on the field.

Smith stressed that the main story of beating the Vikings was 39 rushing plays. It showed Tice’s renewed commitment to the run. Chances are Smith wants to create the same narrative against a Seahawks defense that gave up 189 rushing yards to the Dolphins and will rely on a big, physical cornerback tandem to pose Marshall’s toughest challenge yet.

The arrival of December football in Chicago coincides with the Bears’ stated desire to make their running backs more important. To make the offense go through them more, if you will. If Forte cannot rise to the occasion for whatever reason, the Bears will turn to Bush.

By now, we should be able to tell a bigger difference.

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