As teams empty their backfields to line up more and more receivers out wide, and as tight ends become more interested in catching balls than throwing blocks, the role of running back is evolving in the pass-happy NFL. But two-time Pro Bowl back Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears has met the challenge, earning nearly a third of his nearly 10,000 career yards as a receiver, and becoming a sophisticated weapon in his team's offense.
Forte told Men’s Journal how he turned himself into a threat on every down, and explained the future of the running back position in the Bears's aerial-focused offense.
Do you think the NFL is a passing league now?
You guys get told that line, too? You’re seeing bigger and better performances from quarterbacks who are throwing the ball more, but you can’t be successful throwing the ball without a successful running game. If you look at the teams that went deepest in the playoffs, or even to the Super Bowl, they all make those runs. Seattle doesn’t make it last year without (running back) Marshawn Lynch. I’m not saying the league isn’t pass-first, but it’s not that the running backs don’t have a position.
What’s the role of a running back in the new offense?
If you get a running back that can catch the ball out of the backfield, it’s very advantageous to your offense. You can hand him the ball, and he’s effective between the tackles and outside the ends that way. Also, he can protect the quarterback on passing downs, or even split out as a receiver to catch the ball. For the defense, if he’s able to split out, they either have to put a linebacker on him or decide to put another defensive back in the game. That creates a mismatch for a tight end or a different receiver.
How did you develop into a multiple-threat back?
When I was in college, my coach would tell me that, to be a complete running back, you have to run the ball, catch the ball, and block pass rushers in the backfield. Wanting to get to the next level, you work on that in college so that the pro scouts see it. Catching the ball came naturally to me. Basically it’s an extended handoff. It’s another way of getting the ball outside of the backfield, another way to make a play.
Do you see the focus on passing across the NFL?
Yeah, it’s almost like a copycat league. You see teams having some success lining up in four- or five-receiver sets and an empty backfield, and they’re doing that 20 or 30 percent of the time. Other teams say, ‘Maybe we should try to do that.’ And if they don’t have a running back who fits that, they’ll either put another receiver in there or get a running back who can catch.
Does it frustrate you to run fewer plays?
We get our fair share of runs, even though the cliche is that this is a passing league. If I’m in the 300-plus carry range, that’s what guys like Emmitt Smith were getting. But there aren’t many going 380 to 400 carries in a year anymore. I may have 280 rushes and 75 catches. It all equates into more touches. It’s just a different way of getting a ball.
Do you feel you get the recognition you deserve for your role in the passing game?
I think it’s a little more now because of Fantasy Football. Fans are doing the [Points-Per-Reception] leagues where running backs who catch and run get more points. Before they were kind of like hidden yards. A running back might catch 40 or 50 balls and that might be another 400 to 500 yards. That’s moving the ball down the field for your team and a couple screens may equate into touchdowns. Those running back stats are sort of hidden in the receiving game. A running back who is a dual threat is more valuable, not only in Fantasy Football, but in real football, too.
Did you have to develop your ability to run passing routes?
There are guys you see who are just naturals, and there are some guys who have to really work on it, practicing how to run routes, to how get open, and then catching the ball. I was already a pretty smooth route-runner coming out of high school and in college, but I did have to work on catching the ball. It’s really hard for that to come natural if you’re usually in the backfield. Now the ball is coming a lot faster and might be low, might be high.
Why do you think the game has become more dependent on the passing game?
As a fan and a student of the game, I’d say I think it’s due to guys being bigger, faster, and stronger. You’re seeing guys running faster forty times and being bigger, longer guys, so you see those receivers being faster and faster. Those guys are able to stretch the field on longer, deeper routes. Someone who can score from anywhere on the field — that’s a big advantage to the offense and it’s scary to defenses. They may send a guy who is a deep threat on a decoy route and that opens stuff up underneath. It’s just beginning to be a more dynamic game.