David Montgomery entered the regular-season finale against the Packers as a 1,000-yard rusher — 1,001, to be exact — but left the game on the eighth play. He was helped off the field after hurting his knee on a six-yard run.
Had Soldier Field been filled, it would have been dead quiet. But after testing his knee on the sideline — “I just tweaked a little something,” he said — Montgomery returned in time to end the drive with a two-yard run.
The Bears continued to lean on him while playing keep-away from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. They figure to do the same Sunday to try to keep Saints quarterback Drew Brees — and, likely, star wide receiver Michael Thomas and do-everything running back Alvin Kamara — off the field.
Success for Montgomery at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome would enable quarterback Mitch Trubisky to throw on rollouts and bootlegs, concepts that have helped unlock the best month of his career.
In that sense, Montgomery will be the most important Bear in the wild-card game.
If the second-year running back is putting any extra energy into playing his first playoff game, though, he’s not acting like it. His answers Friday were more elusive than any run he has had all season.
“It’s still a football game, isn’t it?” he said. “I’m just ready to go out and have fun.”
He has had fun the last six games. Because of a concussion, Montgomery missed offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s first game as play-caller. He has been dominant since returning for the first Packers game, averaging 99.7 rushing yards per game and 5.15 yards per carry. In his first nine games, he averaged 59.4 yards and 3.6 yards per carry.
Justifiably, the Bears have credited their reworked offensive line, with Sam Mustipher at center, Alex Bars at right guard and Germain Ifedi at right tackle. But Montgomery said he has been different, too.
“I definitely have tried to focus on the things I need to improve on,” he said. “Hitting stuff when I see it. Stop dancing so much. Just being decisive and hitting it where I should.”
It’s a decidedly different attack than the Saints saw in Week 8, when Montgomery had 21 carries for 89 yards, which were then season highs.
“You already had the runs that are a little bit difficult to deal with because they got jet motions and tight-end swaps and all these things that distract you,” safety Malcolm Jenkins told Saints reporters this week. “And then it’s hitting downhill. They got a really good running back who can run through contact, has good balance and can follow blocks.
“But I think the biggest part is they’ve been doing a lot more movement passes and play-actions . . . with that run game. And it makes it hard, especially if you have undisciplined eyes. It keeps them ahead of the sticks. It makes it easy for the quarterback to just get the ball out of his hands or give him a run option.”
In that sense, Montgomery’s success will dictate that of his teammates. Not that he wants the attention. He admitted that there was a time when being a 1,000-yard rusher was a goal of his.
“But then I stopped caring about it,” he said. “I realized how much it really doesn’t matter. Wins matter. Being selfless matters. It’s cool to say, but that’s really all it is, just somebody saying, ‘I’m a 1,000-yard rusher.’
“Like, I didn’t become the richest human being in the world because I was a 1,000-yard rusher or I didn’t have, like, a full rack of Gatorades come to my house.”
Play well Sunday, though, and Montgomery will give the Bears a chance to steal a playoff game.
Maybe Gatorade will take notice.