A year ago this month, Bears running back David Montgomery’s quest to get faster brought him to a most unusual place: the Burr Ridge home of a Hinsdale Central U.S. history teacher.
Chris Korfist runs a speed school from his house, which has track numbers painted on his long driveway and a not-too-busy street in which to run. His non-traditional approach uses slow-motion cameras and computers to capture runners’ gaits, frame-by-frame, then uses physics to optimize them.
Montgomery, who visited Korfist on the recommendation of teammate Thomas Ives, wanted to increase his top-level speed and try to outrun cornerbacks chasing him on an angle. Korfist’s analysis showed Montgomery pushed so hard when he ran that his pelvis became unstable and would tilt backward. That threw off his timing, so his foot wouldn’t land in the proper place, and he wouldn’t be able to raise his knees high.
“It’s kinda like having a wobbly axle on the car,” said Korfist, who also coaches track at Homewood-Flossmoor and has consulted with NFL and MLB teams.
Not anymore. The visits to Korfist’s home two or three days a week last summer and this offseason have smoothed out his running style and left him feeling fast.
“I’m 23 years old, getting ready to turn 24 [on Monday],” Montgomery said this week. “I’ve not been able to run properly the entirety of my life, just not realizing how I didn’t know how to run. He’s definitely cleared that image up for me.”
The question remains, though: Do the Bears know how to run?
In the Bears’ first 10 regular-season games last year, they averaged 3.6 yards per carry and had two rushing touchdowns. In the last six games, the Bears averaged 4.9 yards per carry and had 10 rushing touchdowns.
The highlight of the six-game stretch was an 80-yard touchdown run by Montgomery in December against the Texans — the longest by a Bear in 32 years and a sign of his improving speed.
There were reasons for the Bears’ uptick: They stabilized their offensive line, switched the play-caller to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor after nine games and, perhaps most important, hit a soft spot in their schedule. Montgomery said the success wasn’t scheme-related, though.
“Nothing really changed; it’s the mentality that changed for us,” Montgomery said. “Whatever attacks us or whatever looks us in the eye, we have to be able to handle it, whatever it may be. Us as a collective group — the offense and the team — the morale just kinda went up. We got tired of being where we were. You get to a point where you get tired of things not going right and you kinda demand things to change.”
Will it carry over to 2021? Matt Nagy, who coached the NFL’s leading rusher in his last season as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, hadn’t been able to run consistently as the Bears’ head coach — until that six-game stretch. In Nagy’s three-year tenure, only five teams have averaged fewer yards per carry than the Bears’ 4.02.
Nagy, who in 2019 told the world he wasn’t an idiot and knew the Bears needed to run the ball better, reclaimed play-calling duties this season.
The Bears have a new starting quarterback in Andy Dalton and a quarterback of the future in Justin Fields. An established running game will give both a margin for error that Nick Foles never had. In Foles’ seven starts last year, the Bears averaged 2.79 yards per carry, the worst among all NFL teams — and about half as many yards as the NFL’s leading team — during that stretch. Foles struggled and got hurt, then benched and is unlikely to start another game for the Bears.
Right tackle Germain Ifedi is confident that last season’s six-game run wasn’t a mirage.
“We got comfortable — David got more comfortable,” he said. “And we’re just getting more comfortable now. We’re not even where we want to be. And I thought we had some pretty decent numbers in a lot of run categories. We know that we have so much ahead of us.”
So does Montgomery, who finished last season tied for fifth in the league with 1,070 rushing yards. He’ll have extra help in the backfield this year — Tarik Cohen was sidelined with a torn anterior cruciate ligament after only three games last season but is expected to be ready for the opener. Damien Williams, whose last game was a star turn in the Super Bowl 16 months ago, brings speed after sitting out last season with coronavirus concerns.
Montgomery’s motivation stays the same. The chip on his shoulder “has been a boulder for a while now,” he said.
“It wasn’t enough for me last year, just knowing the untapped potential that I had within myself,” Montgomery said. “As far as my leadership last year, I didn’t do as well as I thought I could’ve done. …
“Just be more vocal. Be able to stand behind what I say and allow my words to carry a lot of strength when I speak. And that’s just gaining trust with everybody. Doing all the right things all the time. You can’t be a half-assed leader.”
Montgomery felt like he let his teammates down last year.
“That’s what the offseason’s for,” he said. “For me to go back to the drawing board, to fix things that I feel as if I didn’t do well on. And try to improve them.”
And to keep getting faster.
“He’s a scorched-earth player,” Korfist said. “If there’s one small thing he can do to improve his game, he’ll do it.”