Can Matt Forte be the NFL’s next great receiving back?

Running back has long been an important position in the NFL, but as a title, it’s a bit of a misnomer. In reality, the position’s often about much more than just running ability, especially in today’s league where there’s such an emphasis on passing. Blocking in passing situations can be a vital skill for running backs, and being a talented receiver can be even more important. This isn’t all new, as some of the greatest running backs ever have been excellent receivers as well, including Marcus Allen and Walter Payton.

Pass-catching abilities have elevated players like LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk (No. 1 and No. 3 on Joe Posnanski’s list of the top RB seasons) to even higher levels of greatness, and they’ve also figured in stellar campaigns like Chris Johnson’s 2009 (an NFL-record 2,509 yards from scrimmage) and Tiki Barber’s 2005 (2,390 yards from scrimmage). When looking for the next star running back who might break out even further thanks to his receiving abilities, one candidate in particular comes to mind: Matt Forte.

Yes, the Chicago Bears’ star RB only posted 44 receptions for 340 yards last season, putting him 130th in the league in receiving yards and 12th amongst running backs. However, 2012 marked a career-low for Forte in receptions, indicating he just wasn’t used as much as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. Expect that to change in 2013.

The Bears’ new coach is Marc Trestman, formerly of the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, and Trestman has long been a huge fan of getting his running backs involved in the passing game. That worked brilliantly for him in Montreal with players like Avon Cobourne and Brandon Whitaker, and it opened up opportunities to run the ball as well: Whitaker picked up 638 yards and six touchdowns on 72 receptions in 2011, but also ran for a CFL-high 1,381 yards and four more touchdowns that season, while Cobourne caught 64 and 56 balls for 556 and 459 yards respectively in 2009 and 2010 (and the Alouettes won back-to-back Grey Cups in those seasons).

This wasn’t just a quirk of the CFL game, either.  Trestman has continually emphasised using his running backs on short passes, and that’s a trend that goes all the way back to his days as the offensive coordinator for the high-flying Oakland Raiders in the early 2000s. His 2002 Raiders went all the way to the Super Bowl before losing to Tampa Bay, and they did so with more than just star receivers Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Jerry Porter; as C.D. Carter points out here, the unsung star of that team might have been running back Charlie Garner, who hauled in 91 catches (16 more than any NFL running back collected last season) for 941 yards that season:

Trestman, especially during that 2002 season in Oakland, embraced the “pass as run” concept as much as any coordinator in recent memory. Trestman was masterful at using formations to dare the defense to bring more defenders to the line of scrimmage.

Trestman would have receivers run go routes to clear out the cornerbacks, while the third receiver or tight end would run a route toward the middle of the field, keeping the linebackers occupied. This would create plentiful space near the line, Garner would sneak out of the backfield, and Gannon would dump the ball to him in the flat. This rarely led to huge plays, but this “pass as run” approach wasn’t meant to bust 70-yard scores. It was meant to replace the run game, so six and eight-yard gains more than sufficed.

Forte might just be the perfect fit for this system. He’s already shown impressive ability as a receiver, posting 477, 471, 547 and 490 receiving yards in his first four seasons, and an offense featuring a lot of short passes to a back like Forte could be perfect for a team like the Bears that has an impressively-accurate quarterback in Jay Cutler but a lot of offensive line woes. Moreover, like Cobourne and Whitaker up in Montreal, Forte also has the rushing ability to keep the defense honest when he lines up. If they cheat and stuff the box to attempt and stop a run, that could clear deep passing routes for the likes of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. If defenses back off to cover the deep ball, that should open up routes underneath for Forte and other players like newly-acquired tight end Martellus Bennett. Forte has a terrific mix of tools that should make him a great asset for Trestman, and at just 27, he should have plenty of prime left.

Really, it’s curious that we haven’t seen more offenses prominently relying on short passes to running backs. The approach worked brilliantly with Faulk and the “Greatest Show On Turf” Rams as well as Tomlinson and the 2006 Marty Schottenheimer-coached Chargers, and in today’s passing-focused NFL, it seems like a more logical strategy than ever. Defenses are so focused on edge-rushing specialists who can get to the quarterback, which can make it tough to complete deep balls, but that also opens up plenty of holes underneath.

A standard passing play that sends two or three receivers deep tends to draws the defense’s attention towards them, providing further opportunity for a running back to sneak out into the flat or run a short route over the middle. Teams have been able to do this a bit lately, such as the Saints with Darren Sproles and the Ravens with Ray Rice, but it still arguably remains an underexploited area of the game. It may not for long, though. With Trestman’s coaching scheme and Forte’s pass-catching talents, the Bears could be set to take the NFL by storm with an offense heavily featuring passes to the RB – and other teams may soon follow.

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