When the Bears signed Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte to a four-year contract extension before training camp, peace and quiet replaced the possible distraction of a holdout.
Five months later, Forte largely has remained a silent partner in the Bears’ offense.
The Bears (8-5) could use a loud game from Forte on Sunday when they play host to the Green Bay Packers (9-4) at Soldier Field. The Packers would clinch the NFC North title with a win, while the Bears are eager to reverse a skid that has included four losses in five games.
Enter Forte, who has struggled to produce at the same level as last season.
Perhaps the Bears’ fifth-year running back from Tulane is primed to take off against the Packers. He ran off the practice field Thursday before media members could track him down.
That left Bears coach Lovie Smith to try to explain the reasons for Forte’s quiet spells on offense. Smith was asked whether the offensive line, injuries or something else had played a factor.
“It could be all of the above,” Smith said. “But as much as anything, we’ve just got to keep the commitment to the run – especially this time of the year. Yards per carry goes up when you hit a couple of big ones, and that’s what we need to do.”
Part of the blame for Forte’s dip in production belongs to the Bears’ play-callers on offense.
Part of the blame also falls on Forte for not taking full advantage of his chances.
Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice said Forte was running better recently and deserved more opportunities. Forte’s touches are down 10.4 percent from 2011, when he averaged 16.9 carries a game and 4.3 receptions a game en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance.
This season, Forte’s workload has dipped to 19 touches a game. He trails other Pro Bowl running backs such as Houston’s Arian Foster (25.5 touches a game), Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (23.3), Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (21.5) and Baltimore’s Ray Rice (20.8).
“We want to keep finding ways to get Matt [the ball],” Tice said. “Matt’s hot right now. We’ve got to find ways to get him more touches.
“He’s one of the playmakers that is coming through for us, being explosive. He had a couple of great runs [in Minnesota]. We’ve just got to keep going down that alley.”
Forte might also have to take on short-yardage and goal-line duties this weekend.
Backup running back Michael Bush missed practice because of injured ribs, and his status is uncertain for Sunday’s game. If Bush is unable to play, the only running back besides Forte on the 53-man roster is diminutive second-year player Armando Allen (5-foot-8, 190 pounds).
Forte (6-2, 218 pounds) has not rushed for a touchdown since Nov. 4, but he has provided glimpses of his explosiveness with six plays for at least 30 yards. He caught a screen pass and eluded three tacklers for a 47-yard gain in Week 9 at Tennessee, and he outran Vikings defenders Antoine Winfield and Jasper Brinkley for a 36-yard gain five days ago in Minnesota.
Yet Forte’s highlights have been accompanied by failed plays in the backfield.
The Vikings stuffed Forte behind the line of scrimmage three times in Week 14. Jared Allen dumped Forte for a 1-yard loss on a run to the left side. Winfield tackled Forte for a 1-yard loss on a screen pass to the right side. Brinkley and teammate Chad Greenway brought down Forte for a 1-yard loss on another run to the left side.
Although better blocking would help, Forte must break tackles with greater consistency.
It’s a tough assignment.
It also is one for which the Bears are paying Forte well.