Bears running back Matt Forte gets some positive yardage in the second quarter of the Chicago Bears-Houston Texans game Sunday November 11, 2012 in Chicago. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
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SAN FRANCISCO — After the Caleb Hanie debacle last year, I wouldn’t dare suggest the Bears won’t miss Jay Cutler. But Cutler’s injury might give Mike Tice the chance to run the offense he probably should have been using all along.
Remember the ‘‘Run-and-Shoop’’?
That’s the tag Pro Bowl tackle James ‘‘Big Cat’’ Williams gave the run-oriented game plan orchestrated by John Shoop in his debut as a play-caller against the Patriots in 2000 after offensive coordinator Gary Crowton had bolted for BYU in midweek.
After struggling with Crowton’s pass-oriented offense, the Bears embraced Shoop’s back-to-the-basics game plan like a long-lost friend. James Allen had 37 carries for 97 yards in a 24-17 victory.
Not even failure was going to stop the Bears from running the ball that day. Even after Allen gained 50 yards on 17 carries in the first half, the Bears ran on five of their first seven plays of the second half. Allen gained 38 yards, capped by a 16-yard touchdown.
That’s the payoff for being truly committed to the run. Shane Matthews was 22-for-27 for 239 yards and two touchdowns. The offense committed only one penalty — holding on receiver Dez White on a pass play. Those also are payoffs of being truly committed to the run.
The lasting image of that victory, though, is not the production of the running game, but the palpable joy of the Bears’ offensive linemen in getting to execute it.
‘‘We love it because it’s smash-mouth football,’’ right tackle Blake Brockermeyer said that day. ‘‘That’s what we like to do.’’
As football has evolved since the days of leather helmets, one aspect hasn’t changed: Offensive linemen love to run the football. They have the same aggressive nature as defensive linemen, and nothing allows them to use it like a dedicated running game.
It’s what the Bears need most. But it’s not so easy to implement with a quarterback whose reputation has compelled Tice to build the offense around him.
Unfortunately, it has been like trying to stick a big square peg into a small round hole. Since the bye, when the offense should be kicking into gear, the Bears have had positive yards on 55.6 percent of their plays. (The Texans, who lead the league in rushing attempts per game, have had positive yards on 67.3 percent of their plays in the same span.) When a quarterback who cost you two first-round draft picks is 23rd in the NFL in completion percentage (59.2) and 24th in passer rating (80.4) with a Pro Bowl running back and a Pro Bowl receiver, something’s wrong.
Assuming it’s not Cutler, we all know what it is — Tice’s baby, the offensive line. It should be priority one, and Cutler’s absence gives Tice the opportunity to whip the line into shape by letting it do what it does best.
Matt Forte and Michael Bush will appreciate the extra carries, but Gabe Carimi, Lance Louis, Roberto Garza, Chilo Rachal and J’Marcus Webb need them. Fullback Evan Rodriguez is one of the Bears’ best all-around blockers. If he’s not going to be Aaron Hernandez, Monday night would be a good time to let him do what he does best.
It’s not about three yards and a cloud of dust. It’s about setting a tone that cuts down on negative plays — sacks, fumbles, penalties — and opens up all kinds possibilities for a talented offense.
As Tice has reminded us twice recently, he is a disciple of Chuck Knox, his old coach in Seattle. Certainly he knows that Knox turned losers into winners with the Rams, Bills and Seahawks in the ’70s and ’80s with run-first offenses, even with prolific quarterbacks.
The NFL has changed since the glory days of ‘‘Ground Chuck,’’ but not that much. You win with the pass today if you have Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Drew Brees at quarterback. The sooner the Bears realize they don’t have that, the better off they’ll be.