(Photo courtesy of Chicago Tribune)
In the midst of a contract dispute, Chicago Bears’ starting running back Matt Forte has not participated in any of the team’s offseason activities. The Bears placed the franchise tag on Forte in early March, but he prefers not to sign the $7.7 million tender and instead wants a long-term contract, according to ESPN.com. The absence of Forte has allowed free agent signee and former Louisville great Michael Bush, who signed a four-year, $14 million ($7 million guaranteed) in March (courtesy of The Washington Post), to step up and take advantage of the opportunity to play with the first-team offense. According to recent reports, he has several people in Bears’ camp praising what he has shown. Quarterback Jay Cutler spoke highly of Bush, telling Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times he has taken advantage of the opportunity while Forte is out:
“It’s really helping him,” Jay Cutler said of Bush getting more work. “He’s such a pro. He does things the right way. He comes ready to work. He’s a smart guy. He picks up the system quickly. Whenever we get Matt in here he’s going to add a different dimension to this offense but right now Mike’s doing a great job for us.”
Cutler is not the only one praising Bush’s efforts, as new offensive coordinator Mike Tice has loved what he has seen from him. According to Hayes, Tice said of Bush as well as the other RBs:
“We love Michael,” Tice said. “He’s a really good back. You need to have two good backs, and we have two good backs. Of course, we love Matt, and we’re excited about having Mike, and we like [Armando Allen], too. We’re excited about our blend back there. We think they all complement each other, and they’re all going to be able to find their niche and make big plays for us.”
Despite being praised by multiple people in the organization, one Bear who was not pleased with the signing of Bush was Forte himself, who sent out this tweet, saying he felt disrespected by the signing of Bush.
There’s only so many times a man that has done everything he’s been asked to do can be disrespected! Guess the GOOD GUYS do finish last….
— Matt Forte (@MattForte22) March 22, 2012
He followed up that tweet essentially saying he was not afraid of competition and was used to other backs coming in, but thought his contract should have been prioritized over any free agent signings. Forte’s frustration is understandable, as he just wants job security and believes he has earned as much. Once an NFL running back starts inching closer to 30 years old, he becomes more replaceable, and Forte wants to make sure he is taken care of. If any running back has earned a contract, it is Forte. The man has rushed for 1,000 yards twice in his four-year career, and rushed for 997 yards last season (all stats courtesy of ESPN.com), averaging 4.9 yards per carry, before landing on the injured reserve, missing the last four games. He is also a major threat as a receiver, having accumulated 490 receiving yards last season and 547 yards the year before that. However, as Tice said, in the NFL, it is better to have two great running backs. Forte should not feel disrespected, as Bush received a nice offer, and he took it. He did not heggle or hold out for more. He just wanted to play for a Super Bowl contender, and after spending four years in hell, er, I mean, for the Oakland Raiders, he likely could not sign fast enough. Forte will get the contract situation figured out soon enough, but until he does, not only will Bush get better, but the Chicago backfield as a whole will improve as well.
Bush has been one of the most underrated, undervalued, and most productive NFL running backs over the past four years. Unfortunately for him, he was cursed with being drafted by the Oakland Raiders with the first pick of the fourth round of the 2008 draft. Had he not had a season-ending injury in the opening game against Kentucky in 2007, he quite possibly would have been drafted in the first round. When Oakland drafted Darren McFadden the same year as the primary back of the future, many may have thought Bush would be lost in his shadow. However, Bush not only challenged McFadden, but at times flat out outperformed him. While it was Bush that was flagged as the injury risk, McFadden is the player who has had the injury bug during his tenure in the league. McFadden has been an elite runner when healthy, but he has been hurt quite a bit. When he has gone down, the Raiders were lucky not to have much of a drop off by having Bush waiting in the wings. When McFadden went down with a season-ending injury in week 7 last year, the running game barely missed a beat, if they missed one at all, when Bush stepped in.
In the first six games of last season, prior to McFadden’s injury, Bush registered double digit carries only once (10 in week 6 for 28 yards). In those six games, he had a total of 43 carries for 138 yards and 7 receptions for 99 yards. After McFadden went down, he had 213 carries for 839 yards and 30 receptions 319 yards. Those stats were accumulated in 10 games (his totals were 256 carries for 977 yards and 37 receptions for 418 yards for those of you without a calculator). In contrast, Matt Forte registered 203 carries for 997 yards and 52 receptions for 490 yards in 12 games. Now, the AFC West is not nearly as tough as the NFC North, but the Oakland Raiders also do not have nearly as productive of a supporting cast as the Bears do. Forte says he is not afraid of any competition, but who knows, with Bush’s production, maybe he should at least be a little bit. Bush himself is taking it all in stride and told as much to Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
“The transition into the offense, that’s not really hard,” Bush said. “It’s just different words, different terminology, stuff like that. To me, it’s about getting the players even more and getting comfortable. Nobody has ever brought up Forte’s name or wished he was here or anything to make me feel uncomfortable. But me being me, (I think) Forte needs to come on out so we can get it going. But I know he’s got to take care of himself and his family as well. (But) it’s good (taking the first team reps). I need to make sure I get my craft right so I understand everything I have to do in the offense just in case he’s not here, or he’s here and goes down. Just need to make sure I’m ready to go.”
According to ESPN.com, most people in the know expect Forte to show up at training camp and be ready to play week 1. Despite how he feels about Bush, when he comes to play, there will be few teams with a stronger backfield than the Chicago Bears. Along with the addition of Bush, the Bears acquired elite wider receiver Brandon Marshall from the Miami Dolphins and drafted big play threat receiver Alshon Jeffery from South Carolina. They are true Super Bowl contenders, and for all that he has been through, there are few players more deserving of a shot than Michael Bush.