It was a message and you knew it at the time.
In Matt Forte’s otherwise largely empty locker amid the end-of-season cleanout by players of their lockers, a T-shirt with the word “Workhorse” rested on a hanger. It was what Forte wanted his legacy to be as well as a statement for whatever the future held.
“You see how tattered and beat up and stuff [it is],” Forte said, then smiled. “It’s not like me. I’m still good. I just wanted to leave it in there because all my hard work, blood, sweat, tears is in this shirt, too. I wanted to kind of just leave it in my locker along with some stuff.”
If there was an air of finality to it all, Forte understood that. When he had approached the Bears with an offer to restructure the final year in his four-year contract, the Bears hadn’t show any real interest in reworking the deal and give him what would have been an extension on the contract.
The lack of interest on the part of the Bears became “official” on Friday when Forte confirmed via his Instagram account that the Bears would not be attempting to re-sign the franchise’s No. 2 all-time running back now or when free agency formally opens next month.
"Despite my wishes, my days as a member of the Chicago Bears have sadly come to an end," Forte posted. "I was informed earlier this week from the GM that they will not be attempting to re-sign me in free agency. I will remain forever grateful for my time spent in Chicago and being able to play for an organization with such a rich history. My only regret is not being able to win a Lombardi trophy for the best fans in all of sports. I'm excited about the next chapter of my NFL career. But, Chicago will always be home. God Bless and Bear Down!"
Forte’s departure places the football and running game squarely in the hands of Jeremy Langford, who had breakout games filling in while Forte missed three games with a knee injury, and Ka’Deem Carey, the Bears’ fourth-round picks in the past two drafts.
The step away from Forte was confirmed via statement from GM Ryan Pace.
“We recently met with Matt to inform him we will not extend a contract offer for the 2016 season. These decisions are never easy, especially given what Matt has meant to our team and community. We have a tremendous amount of respect for him. Matt is one of the all-time great Bears and did an excellent job for us on and off the field last season. He was a tremendous teammate. We thank him for his professionalism and wish him the very best as he continues his career.”
The decision on Forte is one of several major personnel moves coming in the next couple of months, including several affecting what has been the starting offensive lineup the past few seasons.
The Bears are expected to use their franchise tag to buy time for working out a long-term contract with wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. The first day for applying the tag is Tuesday, Feb. 16, for a period running through Tuesday, Mar. 1. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is not expected back with the Bears after losing his starting job during the season to Charles Leno Jr. Tight end Martellus Bennett is under contract through the 2016 season but his situation is fuzzy after a holdout last offseason and Bennett missing five games late in the season with a rib injury.
In 2012, after Phil Emery replaced Jerry Angelo as general manager, Forte signed a four-year contract worth $30.4 million, including $17.1 million guaranteed. That deal paid Forte $8 million last season, a figure that was not going to be approached by the Bears in any scenario with Forte at age 30.
What the Forte exit does is leave the Bears with one of the lowest cap allotments in the NFL at running back, basically one-sixth of what Forte cost the Bears in 2014. Both Carey and Langford were fourth-round draft picks. Carey has a $710,000 cap hit for 2016, $600,000 in base salary, and Langford will cost the Bears $525,000 in base salary and $660,906 in total cap charge.
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The Bears hold a full deck of nine selections in this year’s NFL draft, including sixth-round picks acquired in the trades of Jared Allen and Jon Bostic. For what it is worth, the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos won Super Bowls in the 90's with outstanding run games built on Dorsey Levens and Terrell Davis, respectively, both sixth-round picks for their teams.
Forte was an immediate starter after his selection in the second round of the 2008 draft, the round after the Bears chose Vanderbilt tackle Chris Williams. He started the first 60 games of his career before suffering a knee injury in 2011 and missing the final four games in the first of his two Pro Bowl seasons.
He is one of 12 players in NFL history with 8,000 career rushing yards and 4,000 career receiving yards and is one of five players in NFL history to have 1,200-plus yards from scrimmage in each of his first eight seasons, joining Curtis Martin, Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson and Ricky Watters.
In eight seasons with the Bears, Forte had 12,718 yards from scrimmage, rushing for 8,602 yards and adding 4,116 via pass receptions, marked by an NFL-record 102 catches in 2014. Forte ranks second in franchise history in yards from scrimmage, rushing yards, receptions (487), 100-yard rushing games (24), and games with 150 yards or more from scrimmage (25), trailing only Walter Payton in all five categories. With 45 rushing touchdowns and 19 receiving scores, his 64 total touchdowns are third in franchise history behind Payton and Neal Anderson. He is also sixth in franchise receiving yards.
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Forte’s eight seasons with 1,200 yards are second only to Payton’s 10. No other Bear has more than three. Forte (106.0 yards per game) and Payton (111.9 ypg) are the only two players in franchise history to average over 100 yards from scrimmage per game in the Bears careers.
A two-time Pro Bowl selection (2011, 2013), Forte leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage and games with 150 or more yards from scrimmage since entering the league in 2008. He is also fourth in rushing yards while ranking first among running backs in receptions and receiving yards and is third among running backs in receiving touchdowns during that time.
In 2014, he broke the NFL single-season mark for receptions by a running back with 102 and set the franchise single-season running back record for receiving yards (808) that year. A team-captain in 2015, Forte is a two-time recipient of the team’s Brian Piccolo Award (2008 and 2014), the team’s 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, and was one of eight NFL finalists for the 2015 Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award.