Holding the door for Matt Forte, and why it’s closed behind him.

In mid-February, former Bears running back Matt Forte posted a message to his Instagram page that stated the following:

At the beginning of the Bears’ 2015 season, the speculation regarding the return of running back Matt Forte felt like a foregone conclusion.  Many fans seemed to accept that the likelihood of the star back returning was slim to none, and you would be hard pressed to blame them.  With each dazzling carry, even in the losses that peppered the Bears 6-10 season, it felt like we were witnessing a farewell tour for a great player, well before that was the case.

The reality of the situation is cold:  The NFL is a business, and the stars weren’t aligning in Matt Forte’s favor:

  • Running backs, especially bell-cow 3 down backs, are a dying trend, losing favor to platoons of the position.
  • Running back is something of a meat grinder position, and 30 is considered the start of decline and a generally safe bet on when the mileage catches up to these athletes.
  • Forte was a productive & reliable star who had earned the right to demand a lucrative, high-dollar contract, likely laden with guarantees.
Those are just the bullet points on Matt’s circumstances, but there is more to this than just a running back hitting the dreaded 30 mark.  Second-year general manager Ryan Pace is aggressively rebuilding a franchise that was nearing a historic low point during a dismal 2014 that featured a coordinator leaking player criticism to the media, a head coach with unspoken votes of no confidence from his players, and a near complete organizational implosion from then GM Phil Emery on down.
While the Bears 2015 record of 6-10 wasn’t much of an improvement over 5-11, the culture and direction of the franchise underwent a total overhaul, and the arrow is streaking upward at a surprising rate.  Pace has been, by all accounts, a revelation as General Manager, personally overseeing the hire of revered Head Coach John Fox and making shrewd splashes in free agency in both the 2015 and 2016 offseasons (with potentially more to come).
Returning Bears and freshly acquired free agents have both repeated the same mantra:  The Bears organization is going in an exciting direction.
So when Ryan Pace approached Matt Forte and said the Bears were moving in another direction, on the surface it appeared that both sides were amicable, if not bittersweet.  Ultimately the feeling I got was that this was a professional decision reached between two professionals.  Personal feelings seemed to not factor into the equation:  Forte wasn’t drafted by Pace, nor did Pace sign Forte to his expiring 4-year $32 million contract.  It was simply time for the Bears and Forte to part ways.
Forte was never long to languish in free agency, and very quickly signed a rather underwhelming contract with the New York Jets (3 years, $12 million, only $8M guaranteed).  He joins another Ryan Pace castaway in Brandon Marshall in the hunter green, and in similar fashion to Marshall’s exile, Forte expressed disdain in the manner of his departure:

“I figured they would at least offer me something mid-to-low range of the free-agent market.  For them to tell me that they don’t want you back is always kind of a hard pill to swallow.  But you roll with the punches — that’s their decision — and you move on.”

While that doesn’t sound brash or resentful, coming from the usually placid Forte it seems almost markedly disappointed.  Hurt, even.

In the time that passed, the Bears went on to offer restricted free agent running back CJ Anderson a very lucrative contract that he didn’t end up signing.  Anderson would’ve made sense for the Bears’ new regime:  He has no problem working in a platoon of running backs, has a history with coach Fox, and more to the point is only 25 years old.

While Anderson ended up re-signing with the Denver Broncos, the news of the Bears’ offer made headlines.  With the knowledge that such ambiguously high money was being extended to Anderson, many fans and pundits wondered why they would be so hesitant to even offer Forte a contract, much less for a smaller value.

That sentiment circulated again today via a brief Matt Forte tweet:

While there doesn’t seem to be outrage from fans (re:  Brandon Marshall’s trade), it’s more a wounded curiosity of why a loyal, humble, proven star in Forte wasn’t given the chance to potentially end his NFL career in the city where it began.

The simple answer is that CJ Anderson’s reasons for becoming a Bear made far more sense than Matt Forte remaining a Bear.  Being 5 years younger is almost reason enough, as callous as that may sound.

I don’t think there’s a single Chicago Bears fan out there that wishes ill upon #22, and I feel as though we are all extraordinarily grateful for his Bears tenure, but this end is necessary.  Besides, if any fans feel upset over Pace not offering Forte a contract, look no further than how Phil Emery handled Brian Urlacher to see how that can sometimes be far worse than simply agreeing to part ways.

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