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Is Matt Forte an elite running back?

Let’s flash back to December 1, 2011. At the time, Chicago Bears star Matt Forte was having the best season of his career and making a claim to being one of the league’s top five running backs. He was leading the league in yards from scrimmage. He was averaging 5.0 yards per rush. He also ranked in the top three in both receptions and receiving yards by a running back. He had gained 1,475 yards from scrimmage through 11 games, the second most in Bears history.

Forte sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in week 13, costing him the remainder of the season. He has been in disputes with the Bears over his contract for the last two years, but that’s not the focus of this article today. For whatever reason, I’ve often struggled with the notion of Forte being an elite player.

Actually, I know the exact reason. There are two of them. First, Forte was not an elite running back prospect and seems to have average physical skills for a starting running back. He wasn’t a high draft pick and doesn’t have elite measurables (his 40-yard dash time was good, but his metrics in the other tests were underwhelming). This, of course, is just about meaningless when discussing a player who has been in the league for four years. Plenty of players have had average measurables and great careers at the running back position, and it’s not difficult to think of players drafted later than Forte who have turned into great backs.

Matt Forte has been silencing critics for years

The second reason is just as flimsy. But I can’t seem to get over the 3.6 yards per carry he averaged in 2009. As my buddy and fellow Footballguys.com staffer Jason Wood succinctly told me, “Get over it.” He’s probably right. But when combined with my questions about his physical skills, it’s hard for me not to wonder if he’s a quantity over quality guy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Forte’s two best seasons were as much a product of workload as anything else. His rookie season he finished third in the league in touches (rushing attempts + receptions). Last year, Forte had 250 touches after 11 games, trailing only Maurice Jones-Drew (253). Of course, it’s important to remember that touches, or a heavy workload, simply by themselves, are indicators of quality, and being able to produce on a high number of touches is a very useful (and rare) skill.

So for me it comes back to wondering about that 3.6 yards per carry average in 2009. I should probably just ‘get over it.’ But I began to wonder, how rare is it for elite backs to have a down year like that? The answer is, not very rare at all.

I looked at all running backs who entered the NFL after World War II and are either (1) in the Hall of Fame, (2) have rushed for 9,000 yards, or (3) have made at least four Pro Bowls. For each of them, I noted their lowest yards per carry average in any season from ages 23 to 26 (to avoid looking at great runners before or after they hit their peak). The full list, below1:

NameYearYPCAgeCarRsh Yds
Marshall Faulk19962.9623198587
Larry Brown19733.1526273860
Warrick Dunn19993.1624195616
Jamal Lewis20053.3726269906
Rick Casares19573.4326204700
Jerome Bettis19953.4823183637
Curtis Martin19983.49253691287
Ricky Williams20033.50263921372
Edgerrin James20023.5724277989
Marcus Allen19863.6526208759
Ricky Watters19943.6725239877
Franco Harris19733.7123188698
Eddie George19983.72253481294
Mike Alstott19973.7824176665
Earl Campbell19813.81263611376
Alan Ameche19593.8126178679
Chuck Foreman19753.82252801070
Bill Brown19643.8326226866
Clinton Portis20043.83233431315
LaDainian Tomlinson20043.94253391335
Thomas Jones20043.9526240948
Shaun Alexander20023.98252951175
Ken Willard19663.9923191763
Lawrence McCutcheon19764.01262911168
Emmitt Smith19944.03253681484
O.J. Simpson19714.0524183742
Roger Craig19864.0726204830
Don Perkins19614.0823200815
Steven Jackson20084.12252531042
Neal Anderson19904.15262601078
Thurman Thomas19894.17232981244
Calvin Hill19734.18262731142
Walter Payton19784.19243331395
Ottis Anderson19814.20243281376
John Riggins19754.22262381005
Eric Dickerson19854.23252921234
Tony Dorsett19804.26262781185
William Andrews19794.28242391023
Corey Dillon19984.31242621130
Jim Brown19624.3326230996
Barry Sanders19924.33243121352
Ahman Green20024.34252861240
Gale Sayers19694.37262361032
Adrian Peterson20094.40243141383
Larry Csonka19704.5324193874
Fred Taylor20024.58262871314
Tiki Barber20004.72252131006
Jim Taylor19604.79252301101
Ollie Matson19564.8126192924
Leroy Kelly19685.00262481239
Clem Daniels19635.11262151099
Joe Perry19535.30261921018
John David Crow19605.852251831071

Forte rushed 258 times for 929 yards in 2009, a 3.60 yards per carry average. As you can tell, a number of other elite running backs have had a “bad” season like that. And Forte’s often been stuck running behind a below-average offensive line in Chicago, and in 2009 at least, a struggling passing game.

Forte isn’t very big, but he often plays like a power runner. He may not be very fast or shifty, but he’s able to break long runs and has an excellent jump cut. He doesn’t always look the part, but he’s been extremely productive for the Bears the past two years. Considering all the positives — Forte averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year, he’s one of only two players in history to start his career with four straight seasons of 100+ carries and 50+ catches — I think it’s probably time for me to “get over it.”

  1. I also eliminated all running backs with fewer than 4,000 career rushing yards, to eliminate players from different eras and blocking fullbacks, and all players who had zero seasons with at least 175 carries between the ages of 23 and 26. []
  2. Note: Only seasons with 175 carries were included. Crow, for example, had only one year with that many carries between the ages of 23 and 26, so his 5.85 YPC average at the age of 25 was the only season to register. []
  • You and me both, buddy. I had a chance to retain him at a decent but not exorbitant price in an auction league before the 2010 season and let him go. My philosophy is only pay for elite talent above a certain amount, and he’s probably the biggest miss I’ve had on a player I could have retained.

    I think part of it with me, also, though, is the lack of touchdowns even though he has had opportunities and has rarely had a touchdown vulture. He has 29 while having over 1,600 yards from scrimmage. Observationally, he hasn’t been a very good goal line runner, often getting stopped short. So he’s elite, but not elite elite like backs who could produce tons of yards and also cap it off with 1 yard runs (Tomlinson, Alexander, Faulk).

    • He’s still elite!

  • Speed Score = 111.7, which is miles above average.

    But…DVOA rankings are 38th, 44th, 20th, and 40th in his 4 years. However, ALY for CHI’s OL has been no higher than 19th since he’s been around. Although, 2nd-level yards per carry & open-field yards per carry have ranked higher than ALY, which signals that RB is better than OL.

    Put it all together, and Forte’s a mystery wrapped in an often-inept 1,500-pound enigma.

    Add a late-season knee injury at age 26, and we’re headlong into “beats the sh*t out of me” territory. If there ever was a RB with a huge range of potential outcomes over the next N years, it’s Forte. (Read: Your skepticism is healthy.)