CLEVELAND — No one would have blamed David Montgomery for making a business decision in his only preseason game of a contract year.
But here was the Bears running back, taking a handoff to the left on the first play of the second quarter Saturday night, jump-cutting and bouncing his run to the right. Montgomery outran defenders along the line of scrimmage at the Browns’ 25-yard line and headed toward the right sideline.
A funny thing happened on the way out of bounds. He planted his left foot at the 20 — between the two numbers painted on the FirstEnergy Stadium turf — and sprinted forward.
Montgomery lowered his right shoulder into cornerback Martin Emerson’s chest. Linebacker Anthony Walker, a Northwestern alum, arrived a split-second later but slipped off the running back.
Montgomery kept moving forward, hip-tossed Emerson to the ground, spun and finally went out of bounds at the 13.
“That just confirmed to me,” Montgomery said, “that they can’t mess with me.”
It’s hard to extrapolate much from a preseason game, particularly against a Browns defense that sat its five best starters. But that’s the Montgomery the Bears need all season if they want to play the physical style coach Matt Eberflus covets.
“That’s who I am,” Montgomery said after the Bears’ 21-20 win. “But at the same time, that’s the principles Coach Flus teaches.”
Quarterback Justin Fields’ growth will be the ultimate indicator of the franchise’s long-term success this season. The rushing attack needs to be the steady drumbeat that allows him to freelance. A powerful running game will keep Fields healthy — no small feat given that he played only 10 games last year — and put him in position to do what he does best: take deep shots off play-action.
“When you have a guy like that who runs the ball with the amount of effort he runs with, and the amount of force and power he runs with, it shows what we want to show as a football team,” Fields said.
If offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s past is prologue, the Bears will lean on more than just Montgomery. On Getsy’s Packers last season, Aaron Jones averaged 11.4 carries per game, and fellow running back AJ Dillon averaged 11.
Running back Khalil Herbert will be a prominent part of the offense. On Saturday, though, Herbert wasn’t handed the ball until Montgomery (nine carries for 28 yards) had finished.
With Montgomery entering the final season of his four-year rookie contract, Herbert might be the one getting starting snaps next preseason. He ably replaced Montgomery after a knee injury knocked him out for four games last year. Montgomery averaged 4.5 yards per carry before the injury and 3.4 after.
Montgomery missed practices because of injury this month and was held out of the first two preseason games for precautionary reasons. He wanted to play the third so he could be reminded what it felt like to get tackled.
“That’s a game-changer,” tight end Cole Kmet said. “His identity and how he plays ball, that’s how we want to play offense.”
The Bears appreciate everything Montgomery embodies — he was one of the few players chairman George McCaskey complimented in his end-of-season remarks — but giving him a pricey extension would buck a leaguewide trend. Most good teams don’t pay running backs.
“I’m really turning it up this year so I don’t leave no regrets — and no stone unturned,” he said. “So that I can have every opportunity to showcase myself the best way I can.”
Montgomery has a lot riding on this season financially. No one would have blamed him for running out of bounds Saturday. That he didn’t showed Eberflus what he wanted to see.
“We’re excited where he is,” Eberflus said.