Facing uncertain future, Bears pay tribute to 'legend' that is Matt Forte


Facing uncertain future, Bears pay tribute to 'legend' that is Matt Forte

As the final whistle blew and the Bears and Lions converged at the center of Soldier Field, only one player took off in the opposite direction.

Matt Forte jogged toward the south endzone to briefly thank fans for all their support over the years.

Forte - being the class act that he is - still made sure he had enough time to hustle back to the middle of the field to slap hands with his opponents.

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Facing an uncertain future, Forte knows this might have been his last game with the Bears.

"I was just kind of thanking the fans," Forte said after the Bears' 24-20 loss. "I wasn't able to get everybody, but I was able to slap a few hands and say 'thank you' or whatever just because if it 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."

Forte said it was just another day of football for him and refused to acknowledge that his fourth-quarter touchdown carried any special significance.

But the eight-year veteran also admitted he spent some time just taking in the surroundings as he walked back to the huddle or stood on the sidelines.

If this is the end, the Bears sent Forte out right, despite the loss. They handed him 17 carries - his highest workload since Week 13 - and targeted him three times in the passing game.

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In the locker room after the contest, Bears players and coaches gushed about Forte with a slew of overwhelming and emotional responses:

Jay Cutler

"It will be sad if we lose him. He's been here my entire career - an unbelievable teammate, unbelievable friend, a true professional in every sense of the word, on and off the field. It would be weird not having him, that's for sure. He gave a lot to this team and this city and he's still got some stuff left in the tank."

John Fox

"I appreciate him and have great respect for him and everything he gave us this season. ... He is a pro. I think he's been that for a long time before I got here. I got to witness it day-in and day-out, good times and bad times. He was a captain and he led a young group. I think a big part of their improvement was Matt Forte."

Kyle Long

"It's incredible. I was thinking about it as he was walking off the field as he was surrounded by people, 'I'm going to tell my kids about this guy; I'm going to tell my grandkids about this guy,' if they don't already know because he's going to be everywhere. He's a legend. He's somebody who should be in the same conversation with the greats. He's the best player I've ever played with."

Marc Mariani

"He's a legend, to me. I love him, man. As amazing of a football player he is, he's an even better guy. Anybody that's been around him for any amount of time can tell you that. To be able to suit up next to that guy and battle with him and just go to war with him every week, that was an honor for me. He's such a stud. I don't know if this is his last game as a Bear, but if it was, man, he's put on a show for a lot of years and it was nothing but an honor to play with him for a year-and-a-half."

Jeremy Langford

"It's hard to explain how much I've learned from him. I've learned a lot on how to be a professional, how to compete every game - in it or not - and how to finish, just like he did [Sunday]. I think he had a great game. I just wish the results were different. It felt good seeing [him get in the endzone], especially for us as a team, since it's been hard for us to score down in the red zone. To see him score really just put us in a position to win the game. It was fun to watch."

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Forte didn't spend much time getting emotional in what may be his final postgame presser with the Chicago media, but he spoke with feeling when asked how he feels about his teammates' respect for him and hearing some of their comments.

"It means a lot," Forte said. "That's what you play the game for. You play the game to earn the respect from your opponents and also your peers, which are your teammates.

"For them to say that, reassures that you've been doing a good job and have been a hard worker during your career. So, I feel like I've been doing the right thing, and if I continue to do that, I'll be in a good place when I finish playing football."

Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record


Unfinished Bears job a 'bitter pill' for John Fox, but the legacy lies beyond just the W-L record

When John Fox succeeded Marc Trestman in 2015, neither he nor the Bears were looking at the situation and Fox as any sort of “bridge” hire – a de facto interim coach tasked with winning, but just as importantly, developing and getting a team turned around and headed in a right direction.

The heart of the matter is always winning, but in the overall, the mission statement also includes leaving the place better than you found it. Fox did that, which is very clearly the sentiment upstairs at Halas Hall as the Bears move on from Fox to Matt Nagy.

“It would’ve been nice to see it through,” Fox said to NBC Sports Chicago. “That’s kind of a bitter pill but you sort things out and move forward.

“I do think it’s closer than people think. We inherited a mess... but I felt we were on the brink at the end. I think that [Halas Hall] building is definitely different; they feel it. I do think that it was a positive.”

(Fox is probably not done coaching at some point, but that’s for another time, another story, and anyway, it’s his tale to tell when he feels like it. Or doesn’t.)

One measure of the Bears change effected: Virtually the entire Trestman staff, with the exceptions of receivers coach Mike Groh and linebackers coach Clint Hurtt, was jettisoned along with Trestman. By contrast, Nagy has retained not only virtually the entire Fox defensive staff under coordinator Vic Fangio, but also arguably the single most important non-coordinator offensive coach by virtue of position responsibility – Dave Ragone, the hands-on mentor of quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Obvious but extremely difficult decisions are coming, as to shedding personnel and contracts – Josh Sitton, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young being among the most difficult because of tangible intangibles that no organization wants to lose.

“Bridge” results

Fox was never intended as a bridge coach but the results point to that function having been served. To exactly what end remains to play out under Nagy and the quarterback whom Ragone and Fox’s handling began developing.

Rick Renteria was one of those “bridge” guys for the Cubs, intended to be part of pulling out of or at least arresting the slide into the Mike Quade-Dale Sveum abyss, and leaving something for Joe Maddon. The late Vince Lombardi effectively served as that, at age 56 and for an unforeseen one-year for a Washington Redskins organization that’d gone 13 years without a winning season before Lombardi’s 1969 and needed a radical reversal. The culture change was realized over the next decade under George Allen and Jack Pardee, much of the success coming with the same players with whom Washington had languished before the culture change.

The Bears were in that state after the two years of Trestman and the three years of GM Phil Emery, certain of whose character-lite veteran player acquisitions (Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall) and high-character launchings (Brian Urlacher) had left a palpable pall over Halas Hall. A Fox goal was to eradicate that, which insiders in Lake Forest say privately was accomplished even amid the catastrophic crush of three straight seasons of 10 or more losses, and with injuries at historic levels.

What happens next is in the hands of Nagy and GM Ryan Pace, after a third John Fox franchise turnaround failed to materialize. Or did it? Because much of the core, from Trubisky through the defensive makeover, came on Fox’s watch, like him or not.

“You wish some things would’ve happened differently obviously,” Fox said, “but there was a lot positive that happened.”

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman.