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Monday, May 24, 2010
Updated: May 25, 10:30 AM ET
Running still key, even under Martz

By Michael C. Wright
ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The reaction seems nearly rehearsed.

Their eyes light up. Then a smirk as if to say Think that if you want to precedes what's about to be said.

"We hope people are thinking that," Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith said, smiling.

Martz
Mike Martz will put the Bears' speed on offense against anyone in the NFL.

But how could anyone not expect Chicago to get away from a decades-long reputation for smash-mouth football on offense, given the acquisition of new coordinator Mike Martz, who comes from the let-it-fly school of offense?

Again, the Bears say, "Think that if you want to." They plan to stick to pounding opponents with the ground attack. Yet Martz's history over the past 10 years might indicate otherwise, which is why the Bears revel in the air of unpredictability concerning the offense for 2010 with the new coordinator on board.

"Having been around him a couple of months, he gets the rap as this bombs-away guy, but I really don't think it's gonna be that this season," offensive line coach Mike Tice said. "We have a multi-formational, multi-personnel group offense. We can do a lot of different things. [Martz is] a great offensive mind, and he understands we have to score points. He's gonna put the playmakers in the position to do that."

In the past, Martz did it through the air. A lot. Going back to his lone year as a coordinator in St. Louis (1999), Martz hasn't ever given the ground game precedence in his offenses. According to research conducted by ESPN Stats & Information, from 1999 to 2008 (Martz didn't coach in 2009), NFL teams ran the ball approximately 46 percent of the time.

Martz's offenses, meanwhile, used running plays 39.5 percent of the time in that same span, and that number dipped even more to 37.7 percent in his three seasons after leaving St. Louis. Interestingly, the only two seasons in which his offenses came close to running the ball 45 percent -- remember, the league average in Martz's last 10 seasons was 46 percent -- were 1999 and 2001, years in which the "Greatest Show on Turf" offense helped Marshall Faulk produce the best two seasons (1,381 and 1,382 yards) of his career.

From 2006 to 2008, Martz's offenses in Detroit and San Francisco passed the ball on 1,692 plays and ran on 1,025 occasions. Will those ratios even out somewhat in Chicago? The Bears seem to think so.

"It all applies to the kind of people you have," Martz said. "This team right now is built on speed. I'll match our speed against anybody. You can still have the speed that we have and still play smash-mouth football. That's not illegal. Once you have speed and talent on the outside, that doesn't mean you can't go back and white knuckle it. I think that's an assumption that a lot of people make [and] that's great because when you line up and get after them, they'll respect that."

Bears running back Matt Forte should be affected most by the changes Martz implements on offense. Growing up in Louisiana, Forte always viewed the Bears as a "rough and tough" team that "kind of just beat teams up."

The Bears remain capable of living up to that persona, Forte said, but he also understands that the NFL has evolved into more of a passing league. Forte has averaged 287 carries over two seasons in Chicago. His pass-catching skills appear to mesh well with the new offense, especially when considering that Kevin Jones caught 61 passes in just 12 games in 2006 for Martz in Detroit.

"It was different back then. I wouldn't say they couldn't catch the ball out of the backfield back in the day. But that just wasn't teams' philosophy," Martz said of the Bears teams he remembers from the past. "I like catching the ball out of the backfield because it gives you a chance to get out in space. I'm not against having the Martz offense where you pass the ball a lot and you don't run as much, because even though you may lose some carries, you can kind of get them back with the passes out of the backfield."

The fact that Chicago plays in an outside venue could also play a role in Martz evening out the run-pass ratio for 2010. Over his last two seasons in St. Louis, and first two years in Detroit -- teams that play in indoor stadiums -- Martz never called running plays more than 39.6 percent of the time.

Making the offensive calls for ground-oriented coach Mike Singletary in San Francisco -- which plays outdoors -- in an offense that featured running back Frank Gore, Martz called 397 runs and 509 passes (43.8 percent running plays).

The Bears' rushing numbers for 2010 could be similar, if not even more, they say.

"This is Chicago. We still want people to consider us a tough, physical team. We're gonna have to run the football; that's not gonna change," Smith said. "Having a more extensive passing game will help the running part of the game and that's what we're hoping to get -- where you get a defense having to adjust to different formations, thinking about the pass, and in a pass-rush mode -- and then running the football. We play in the elements. So you still have to have that same tough-man philosophy."

Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com.