Recent numbers show the NFL is becoming pass-happier by the season. Points and yardage records are being broken yearly as teams continue to air it out with increasing frequency.
As a result, run games are often viewed as "complementary" to the meat and potatoes of the offense: the passing attack. It's one of the many reasons that running backs are viewed as commodities, players whose lack of longevity precludes them from huge, multi-year contracts – unless you are Adrian Peterson, of course.
In 2013, the projected franchise tag number for running backs – calculated by averaging the top five salaries at the position – will be roughly $7.7 million. Only safeties, tight ends and kickers make less.
Despite the recent trends, teams cannot ignore the ground game. Just look at the rushing attacks of the two Super Bowl teams. The San Francisco 49ers rode the back of Frank Gore all the way to the big game, while the Baltimore Ravens feature one of the best all-around backs in the game in Ray Rice.
It's great to have a quality aerial attack but if opposing defenses don't respect your run game, it's going to bard to move the ball through the air.
Which is why the Chicago Bears invested heavily in their running back tandem last offseason. Matt Forte received a four-year, $32 million deal with more than $17 million guaranteed, while Michael Bush signed a four-year contract worth $14 million, with $7 million guaranteed.
Salary size doesn't always lead to production though. Let's look back at the performance of Chicago's running backs in 2012 to see if any changes need to be made.
After missing the final four games in 2011 with a sprained knee, Matt Forte came into 2012 healthy and paid. He rewarded the team with his third 1,000-yard rushing season the past five years. Forte rushed 248 times for 1,094 yards and five touchdowns. It was the most carries he received since 2009 and the most yards gained on the ground since 2008, his rookie season.
Forte injured his ankle in Week 2, which forced him to sit out the following contest. He returned in Week 4 but the ankle didn't fully heal until roughly midseason. Yet he still showed his trademark field vision and open-field ability, despite a bum ankle that sapped him of his burst.
One concern for Forte going forward is the fact his burst never returned, even after the ankle healed. From Week 10-17, he rushed for more than 100 yards in just one contest. In addition, his 4.4 yards per carry on the season were his lowest since 2009.
An additional concern was Forte's lack of impact on the passing game. He caught 44 passes for 340 yards, which are both career lows. For a player that excels as a receiver out of the backfield, who is a mismatch nightmare for linebackers and safeties, those numbers are unacceptable.
Forte turned 27 in December and has just a few more good years left in him. Most NFL running backs drop off dramatically by the time they turn 29. If he regains his burst, he can once again be the explosive player that has carried Chicago's offense the past five years. That could be a big if though, as he's dealt with numerous knee and ankle injuries the past few years.
Expect new head coach Marc Trestman, who will serve as the team's de facto offensive coordinator, to develop more ways to use Forte as a pass catcher. In three years as the lead back for the Oakland Raiders under Trestman (2001-2003), Charlie Garner averaged 70 catches and 635 yards per season.
With the new focus of the team shifting to the offensive side of the ball, expect Forte to reach career highs as a pass catcher in the coming seasons.
RB Michael Bush
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports
The team signed Bush last offseason to be the "thunder" to Forte's "lightning." Bush served as a quality short-yardage back who was perfectly capable of carrying the load when asked to do so. He finished 2012 with 114 carries on 411 yards (3.6 average) and five touchdowns. Bush played in 15 contests and was placed in injured reserve in Week 16 with a rib injury.
Bush's bruising style was a very good complement to Forte's quickness and speed. As a team, the Bears rushed for 1,970 yards, 10th best in the league. Trestman used a two-back approach in Oakland with Garner and bruiser Tyrone Wheatley. With improvement up front, Bush and Forte should continue to provide a balanced, two-headed attack that can wear down opposing defenses.
During training camp, second-year player Armando Allen was often used as a receiver out of the backfield, as well as in the slot and out wide. His quickness and solid hands, as well as good open-field ability, made him a tough matchup for defenses.
Yet former offensive coordinator Mike Tice completely ignored Allen last year, even as the passing game floundered for most of the campaign. Despite playing in 15 games, Allen received just 27 carries and caught only two passes.
It's unclear whether Allen, who made the team as an undrafted free agent last season, is in Trestman's future plans. Allen will likely get an invite to training camp and will need to show the new coach he's worth a roster spot. If he can again prove his value as a receiver, he has the potential to serve in a role similar to that of Darren Sproles in New Orleans.
Kahlil Bell broke camp as a member of the 53-man roster for the fourth straight season. Yet, during the Week 6 bye, Bell was asked to take a pay cut. He refused and the team cut him. Bell was signed by the New York Jets but was cut in Week 14. When the Bears needed a replacement for Bush late in the season, they went back to a familiar face and re-signed Bell.
He finished 2012 with 29 carries for 76 yards (2.6 average), to go with one catch for 11 yards. Bell is a quality special teams player but doesn't offer much more than that. I will be very surprised if he's on Chicago's roster in 2013.
No other position on Chicago's offense is as solid as running back. With Forte and Bush, there is no need for any major changes. Trestman will likely bring in some fresh competition for Allen for the third team's third RB spot, but beyond that, this group is good to go for at least two more years.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.
In the eighth of our 10-part series looking back at the 2012 Chicago Bears, we break down the play of the team's running backs, the team's most comfortable position on offense.
In the eighth of our 10-part series, we break down the play of Chicago's running backs this season.