A clichéd mantra among too many observers is that most players from bygone eras of the NFL couldn’t play in the modern game. The real question to muse over would be actually the opposite, as in how many of the modern players could have played back then, before rules changes protected players, rampant specialization, no one needed to work offseason jobs and such. But that’s a matter for another time, another column.
Toward that issue, one of the game’s all-time greats is certain that Matt Forte could have played in those times and been a great himself.
“He is a truly ‘great’ runner and you don’t find many of those anymore,” Hall of Fame running back Floyd Little told CSNChicago.com. “But the kind of running back Matt Forte is, he is a little bit different. He’s from my era. He would have been a great player back then, in the 1970s. He’s durable, he takes on the load, he takes on the team’s personality.
“The backs that run 10 yards and raise their arms to come out, they couldn’t play in our era.”
Little, elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010, was in town as part of the third annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Chicago Salute to Greatness, hosted by the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s National Advisory Board. The event, raising money to support a variety of charities, is being held at the Glen Club in Glenview, with Hall of Fame members including Little, Dave Casper, Curley Culp, Dan Hampton, Ted Hendricks, Ken Houston, Jim Kelly, Marv Levy, Tom Mack, Randall McDaniel, Anthony Muñoz, John Randle, Andre Reed, Jackie Smith, Jan Stenerud, Thurman Thomas, Dave Wilcox and Jack Youngblood.
Little, the sixth pick of the 1967 draft, led all backs in yards from scrimmage from 1968-1973 and missed just 10 games over a nine-year career. That durability is what he sees as the key to Forte’s greatness.
“If he just stays with the team and a good quarterback – I played with 27 different quarterbacks – he will do great things,” Little said. “He’s durable, has great vision, skill levels, catches the ball well, knows how to run.
“He has be lucky also. You can’t take a shot to your legs, and you have to learn how to protect your legs with your arms.”
To demonstrate, Little bent from the waist as he talked, his left arm bent as if cradling a football and dipping down almost to the level of his left knee.
“You have to go down and meet that tackler with your shoulders and your forearms, and this is to protect your,” he said.
“His durability is what makes him a ‘great’ back, the kind that can play in any era.”
Now the “three-down back” is the anomaly. For Little’s time, it was the norm, and Little was unofficially the first to be called “The Franchise” by his team because of both his excellence and also his variety of roles.
Little views Forte - not Jay Cutler, not the wide receivers - as that player for the Bears.
“He’s one of those guys who, the team goes as he goes,” Little said. “He’s on the field all the time.
“We were on the field all the time, and I mean all the time. I did punt protection, punt return, field-goal block, field-goal protection. Hank Stram told me, and Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell told me, the Chiefs just had those guys come off the edge just to punish me, not to try to block any kicks. So by the end of the game, I was getting pretty beat up.”