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Bernstein: Can Forte Carry Bears With Cutler Out?

By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) Matt Forte is a very good NFL running back. He has multiple strengths, minimal weaknesses, practices hard and stays healthy.

And it was great to see the Bears again not need him to do much, in another convincing win.

But now Jay Cutler could miss the rest of the regular season with a broken thumb on his throwing hand, missing 6-8 weeks, according to initial reports. Forte will be called upon to shoulder the load, as Caleb Hanie takes over at the most important single position in team sports.

Good teams don't want a running back to appear indispensible – they want them to appear interchangeable. When he was accounting for a disproportionate percentage of yards – as he was earlier this year -- something wasn't working.

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Now, it's an emergency. He's as indispensible as they get.

As well as he was playing earlier, it was as much a function of unreliable pass blocking and inferior receiver play as it was Forte's own skills. He was taking the ball and running with it, largely because nobody wanted to risk throwing it. It was hand it to him, flip it to him, or get sacked.

The offense had seemed to have unlocked something, lately, energizing the downfield passing game with a moving pocket, quicker-hitting routes, and Cutler's remarkable athleticism buying time for deeper pattern combinations.

It helps when the defense and special teams score points on their own, too, and at the very least continue to provide shorter fields. It will have to be a true three-phase effort from the Bears, now, verifying the rhetoric of a sport proud to refer to itself as the only real, team game. Take the ball away so the opponent can't have it, return kicks and punts far enough that it takes them too many plays to score.

There is a hard question that must be asked, considering what Forte admitted to the Sun Times: "To continue to give me the touches I've had since my rookie year but not award me a long-term contract send the message that you're OK grinding me into a pulp."

Simply, is he hitting a mid-season physical lull? The equivalent of a starting pitcher's "dead-arm period," whatever that means? Could be, even with the off-week in the books.

Better not be, now.

The last two games have not seen his earlier elusiveness, or speed hitting the hole. Marion Barber seems to be the primary goal-line option.

I had hoped for two things -- that Forte, at age 25, is in the prime of his prime, and fully capable of again providing workhorse production as a runner, receiver and blocker.

And that the Bears had evolved beyond needing that from him to succeed.

Going forward, there may be no choice.

Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of "Boers and Bernstein" since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein's columns here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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