Bears general manager Ryan Poles wanted to bring back running back David Montgomery last year, and felt he made a solid contract offer. Ultimately, though, Montgomery elected to take his career in another direction.
The Bears saw their top running back sign, instead, with the division rival Detroit Lions in March. The move paid off for Montgomery, who produced his second 1,000-yard rushing season and helped the Lions reach the NFC championship game.
The Bears pivoted. They signed veteran back D’Onta Foreman to a relatively cheap, one-year contract. They added special teamer Travis Homer, who played only six snaps on offense. Finally, they drafted rookie Roschon Johnson out of Texas with a fourth-round pick. The Bears paired those three with returning veteran Khalil Herbert.
Here’s a look at how the running backs fared in 2023.
For the second season in a row, Matt Eberflus’ team ranked among the best in football when running the ball. That has been partially thanks to quarterback Justin Fields’ rushing abilities. Fields led the Bears in rushing for the second year in a row.
Herbert began the year as the primary back and finished first among Bears running backs in rushing yards (with 611) and scrimmage yards (745). Herbert injured his ankle in Week 5 during a game at Washington. That’s when Foreman stepped up.
A journeyman back, Foreman held his own as the starter for about a month. He finished the season with 425 rushing yards, most of that coming during a five-week stretch while Herbert was out.
Johnson, the rookie, mixed in here and there throughout the season. Late in the year, he emerged as the No. 2 behind Herbert. He was the most productive receiving back, catching 34 passes for 209 yards.
Herbert’s injury limited him to only 12 games. He also continued to struggle, at times, as a pass blocker. That was a key focus for him during the offseason, but there remains room to grow in that area of his game.
Foreman was a hard-nosed runner, but the Bears elected not to play him for large stretches of the season. Early in the year, Foreman was a healthy scratch for about a month. The coaches told him that his lack of contribution on special teams led to him being inactive on game days. But as soon as Herbert went out, Foreman proved to be highly useful and efficient with three 80-plus rushing performances in a four-week span. When Herbert returned to full health, the Bears once again fazed out Foreman.
Johnson went through some early growing pains but felt his understanding of the scheme improve throughout the season.
1. Week 5: Herbert rushed for 100 yards in Week 4 against Denver and was off to another great start a week later in Washington. He had 76 rushing yards in the first half.
But then Herbert sustained an awkward-looking ankle injury when his cleat caught in the grass as he contorted his body to make a catch. The injury wound up being a high ankle sprain that kept Herbert out for five weeks. It allowed Foreman and Johnson to share the limelight for a few weeks.
2. Montgomery’s moment: A mid-November loss to the Detroit Lions was one of three blown fourth-quarter, double-digit leads for the Bears. It was Montgomery who scored the go-ahead touchdown for the Lions with two minutes to go. For Montgomery, it had extra significance coming against his former team. For the Bears, it was one of the more deflating losses of the season and a bit of a gut-punch from Montgomery.
3. 250: Everything came together for the Bears’ rushing attack in a Christmas Eve win over Arizona, 27-16. The Bears rushed for a season-high 250 yards. Herbert led the way with 112 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. Johnson added 37 yards on nine carries. Fields contributed 97 yards and a score as well.
The Bears really hit their stride running the ball in November and December, during a stretch when they won five out of seven games.
Herbert enters the final year of his rookie contract in 2024. Homer is under contract for one more season. Johnson has three years remaining on his rookie contract. Foreman will be a free agent in March.
Shaw Local Grade: B+
This might seem low for an offense that finished No. 2 in the NFL in rushing, but Fields’ running abilities have propped up those numbers over the past two seasons. Herbert remained incredibly efficient, but missed five games with an ankle injury. Foreman was a home run addition, given for what the Bears paid for him, but there were stretches when they didn’t use him. Johnson showed promise but has more to prove.
That said, the Bears are in great position moving forward at running back. Herbert likely will enter the 2024 season in position to be the lead back again, with Johnson as the No. 2.
The Bears could add another cheap veteran or select another running back in the draft, but don’t expect Poles to spend big at this position in free agency. That’s not how he has approached the running back position as a GM, and it’s not how the Chiefs approached it when Poles was in Kansas City.