CHICAGO – His eyes were set once the ceremonial handshakes were done. There was no diagonal veer towards the tunnel. He was running straight forward.
The 40. The 30. The 20. The 10, 5, goal line then end zone. Matt Forte went as he had a number of times at Solider Field before.
This time, however, he stopped by the fans that sat along the wall and gave high fives. With a gaggle of photographers to his left looking to capture the moment, Forte genuinely greeted the fans to his right as they cheered.
This might be goodbye. Forte doesn’t know. He just wanted to make sure the chance did pass him by in case it was.
“I was kind of just thanking the fans. I wasn’t able to get everybody, but I was able to slap a few hands and say thank you or whatever,” said Forte of the gesture on Sunday. “Just because if this was the last game that I play in Soldier Field, I didn’t want to leave without showing the fans that I appreciate them in person.
“So, I was able to do some of that stuff at the end on my way into the tunnel.”
Maybe it’s that statement that’s part of the reason that Forte has become an admired member of the franchise the past eight seasons. He had conducted himself in a blue-collar fashion both on and off the field. He’s won the team’s prestigious Brian Piccolo Award and been named a captain.
On top of that he’s rushed for 8,602 yards and caught 487 passes-five short of Walter Payton’s franchise record. Plus he’s lost an incredibly low seven fumbles his entire career when he’s possessed it on a run or pass 2,522 times.
Anytime you are mentioned with No. 34 respect is bound to come your way, and for Forte its has the past few weeks.
That’s because his contract is up. He wanted an extension before the season but new regime was reluctant to do so.
They weren’t thinking with their heart, they were thinking with their head. It’s the most difficult yet necessary thing for anyone to do in any line of competitive industry, especially in professional football.
For a running back, age is not just a number.
In 2015 Forte was turning 30 years old. Per an article by ESPN’s Inside Slant back in July, only 46 running backs in NFL history had rushed for over 1,000 yards after turning three decades old. Adrian Peterson became the 47th this season after leading the league with 1,485 yards for the Vikings this season.
Per SportingCharts.com, just 27 over 30 have rushed for 1,000 yards in the league since 1990 including Peterson’s efforts in 2015.
History is not on Forte’s side despite a tireless work ethic which has been noted by this Bears regimes and ones from the past. His numbers this year (898 yards, 4.1 per carry average, 6 touchdowns) were comparable to past seasons but were a bit down.
Missing three games due to a knee injury didn’t help those totals and Forte did return strong following the issue, but in that time two other options emerged.
Jeremy Langford burst onto the scene with 182 totals yards and two scores against the Rams when Forte was out of the lineup. The performance kept the rookie in the rotation the rest of the season and he was then joined by second year ballcarrier Ka’Deem Carey.
While never seeing the snaps of Langford, Carey did show flashes in the final five games when he scored three touchdowns and broke a few runs and catches. The pair make for two younger and more salary friendly pieces of the future of the team who have yet to hit their prime.
It’s a lot of things that Bears general manager Ryan Pace has to consider should the money to retain Forte start getting high. In his end of year news conference Pace praised Forte for his willingness aid the young running backs this season, but made no commitment for the future.
“Matt’s one of the 18 UFA’s that we have we have to discuss going forward and we have to be real thorough and honest with that assessment,” said Pace when asked about Forte. “We like the idea of a rotational group of running backs and I thought that was one of our better rooms.”
But is it better for the future is what must be on Pace’s mind from here on out. There are no doubting the great things that Forte brings, but if it’s at a cost or something that holds progress back then it’s time to let him go.
The heart and the mind can intertwine at this time when it comes to popular player and coaches.
Look at what transpired in Indianapolis on Monday night. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano appeared gone, owner Jim Irsay went through what he described as a “thoughtful, spiritual process” and decided to bring him back.
Perhaps it was the heart of a popular coach that won him over, willing to overlook past strife between him and General Manager Ryan Grigson to do what he thought was right. Continuity, according to Irsay, it what made it the right move in his mind.
Forte has just as much pull from his teammates and the fans that anxiously greeted him as he walked along the wall at Soldier Field on Sunday. Will that be enough to sway the Bears to bring him back?
Fair or unfair, it can only be a part. Reality is the bottom line and must be, first and foremost, at top of mind.