In a somewhat surprising move, the Chicago Bears agreed to terms on a four-year, $14 million contract with Michael Bush.
From a personnel standpoint, it is hard to blame the Bears for making a move to protect themselves in negotiations with Matt Forte, who has been seeking a long-term deal for some time. In his short time as the GM, Phil Emery has executed two bold moves, trading for Brandon Marshall shortly after the start of the new league year and signing Bush. From a business prospective, though, Chicago has made it clear it has no intentions to reward a player who has done as much in a short time and with as much class as Forte has.
However, the surprising parts to this signing are that: 1) Bush would sign anywhere that he didn’t have a clear path to the starting job after his rather impressive performance over the second half of the 2011 season, 2) Chicago would sign the best free-agent running back in the class, understanding they already had Kahlil Bell as a capable reserve and 3) knowing that acquiring a back in his prime like Bush would not only undermine and upset the offense’s centerpiece, but also force him to share touches if/when he returns from a likely holdout.
At the start of free agency, two destinations seemed to make the most sense for Bush – Cincinnati and Cleveland (assuming the Bengals were going to part with Cedric Benson and the Browns would let Peyton Hillis walk, both of which seemed likely). Both teams execute a version of the West Coast Offense that will not hesitate to lean on the running game when necessary. The WCO has also long rewarded running backs who possess the receiving skills Bush does. And let’s not overlook the small detail that Bush was born, raised and went to college at Louisville, which is not a long drive from the two Ohio teams, particularly Cincinnati.
In case you haven’t been keeping count, Forte has been in the league for four years and has been forced to deal with high-profile backups (Kevin Jones, Chester Taylor and Marion Barber) every season. Granted, Jones didn’t help much during his injury-plagued stay in Chicago, which allowed Forte to post a 1,715-total yard, eight-touchdown debut in 2008 and 1,616-yard, nine-score follow-up effort in 2009. Now, Forte has to deal with the 27-year-old Bush, who is easily the best back of the four players Chicago has brought in over the years to “compete” with Forte and will now command most of the goal line touches and a sizable chunk of the passing game work.
Even though Chicago will run the ball earlier in the season and with more conviction than it ever did under former OC Mike Martz, it is hard to like this signing from a number of perspectives.
The most obvious reason to dislike Bush in Chicago from a fantasy standpoint is because he is a poor bet to ever become the feature back. In Cincinnati or Cleveland, Bush would have been a strong bet for 325-350 touches with injury-prone second-stringers like Bernard Scott and Montario Hardesty picking up the rest of the work. There was little doubt in my mind the Bengals would have been the best fit for Bush, but they opted for BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
On the other hand, Forte played in 60 consecutive games to begin his NFL career before the knee injury he suffered in Week 13 knocked him out for the remainder of the season. Forte’s running style is not one that exposes him to injury on a regular basis, meaning a repeat of 2011 is unlikely.
Assuming both players are healthy (and/or not holding out) all season long, neither back is a likely candidate for 300 touches now. Certainly, sharing the load is not uncommon in today’s NFL, but in Forte and Bush, the Bears have two players who are certainly more than capable of being feature backs. When both are healthy, expect the same kind of workload split that Bush had with Darren McFadden, albeit in a much less dynamic offensive scheme under new OC Mike Tice.
In summary, it’s hard to believe any of the running backs involved benefits fantasy-wise from this transaction. It’s hard to imagine Forte being anything more than a low-end RB1 with 5-6 TD upside or Bush receiving enough opportunity to be anything more than an inconsistent RB3 due to Forte’s durability. What little fantasy value Bell had entering the 2012 season as Forte’s handcuff is gone as well.