Forte hit the ground running as a rookie RB
Versatile running back held down position for several seasons
Our pick at No. 47, Matt Forte, ran for 123 yards on 23 carries in his pro debut and held down the position for the next eight seasons, becoming the Bears’ first long-term feature back since Neal Anderson.
Matt Forte took the handoff from Kyle Orton and veered to his right.
He followed a crushing block by guard Roberto Garza, made a move that left Colts safety Antoine Bethea grasping air, then outraced the other safety, Bob Sanders, to the end zone.
Forte’s fourth carry of his first game showed that the Bears might not have to worry about the running back position for a while. It was part of one of the best Bears debuts ever: 123 yards on 23 carries as the first rookie to start at running back since Walter Payton, who carried eight times for zero yards in his first game in 1975.
After Neal Anderson retired in 1994, the Bears had placed their hopes in a new rookie running back about every three years. Rashaan Salaam in 1995, Curtis Enis in ’98, Anthony Thomas in 2001 and Cedric Benson in ’05 had varying amounts of success, and Thomas Jones had an excellent three-year run as the team’s feature back from 2004 to ’06. But Forte solidified the position long-term for the first time in a generation.
Forte set the tone for his great start when he arrived in a suit and tie for his first practice as teammates showed up in sweats or shorts.
“The way he has done everything since he showed up his first day at Halas Hall — just ready to go on a business trip — that’s what we’ve gotten from him,” coach Lovie Smith told the Tribune’s Vaughn McClure on Aug. 26, 2011. “He has come to work every day; hasn’t missed a beat, missed a practice.”
His flashy first impression showed Forte’s talent, but it did not exactly foreshadow what he would bring to the Bears. For the next eight years Forte’s value showed in the small details, such as knowing how many yards to set up his pass route for a first down or choosing which blitzer to block to ensure his quarterback could get off a pass.
“He’s such a smart player and so versatile,” quarterback Jay Cutler told McClure. “This offense really can’t run without him back there. … He’s a threat all over the field. There are not many running backs in the league that can do what he does. … He’s like another quarterback.”
Forte was not the greatest goal-line back, nor did he possess the breakaway speed of a Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson. But as a total running back, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Forte compared favorably with most players of his era.
During his 10-year career, nobody gained more than his 14,468 yards from scrimmage, and he became the NFL’s first player with 900 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards in each of his first four seasons.
In 2013 Forte set an NFL record for running backs with 102 receptions. A 2014 Sports Illustrated feature labeled him “more important to his team than any other back in the NFL.”
Forte finished his Bears career with the best statistics of any running back other than Payton. He ranks second in team history with 8,602 rushing yards, 12,718 net yards, 487 receptions, 24 100-yard rushing games and five 1,000-yard rushing seasons. His 1,339 rushing yards in 2013, when he was named to his second Pro Bowl, are the most by a Bears running back besides Payton.
His savvy shows on the NFL’s list of all-time two-point conversions, where Forte’s six rank behind only Marshall Faulk’s seven.
“I don’t just want to be a player that played this game and was a good running back,” Forte told the Tribune’s David Haugh on Oct. 13, 2014. “When I leave the game, I want them to be able to say things about me that leaves a mark in the NFL for a long time.”
The 2008 draft was a good one for running backs, and Forte — a second-round pick who attended Tulane, his only FBS scholarship offer — turned out to be the best of the 10 backs taken in the first three rounds.
His 9,796 rushing yards topped Johnson (9,651), Jamaal Charles (7,563), Jonathan Stewart (7,335), Ray Rice (6,180) and Darren McFadden (5,421). Forte’s 75 touchdowns rank ahead of Jordy Nelson’s 72 and the 64 of Johnson and Charles, and his 554 receptions trail only Pierre Garcon’s 628, Nelson’s 613 and DeSean Jackson’s 589.
Pro Football Reference’s approximate value metric ranks Forte as the fourth-best player from that draft after Matt Ryan, Calais Campbell and Joe Flacco.
“He walked in high-pedigree, high-IQ, strong-willed, driven to be a great player,” former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo told Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden. “You wish every player you draft had Matt Forte’s intangibles.”
Forte’s quiet leadership spoke volumes, even as the Bears offense added volatile personalities such as Cutler, wide receiver Brandon Marshall and tight end Martellus Bennett.
“When things get out of control in the locker room, he’ll step up and whip somebody into shape,” Culter told Layden. “B-Marsh is his favorite target for that. But any way you put it, he’s one of the leaders on the team. And he works harder than anybody else.”
Forte signed with the Jets as a free agent in 2016 and played two years in New York before retiring after the 2017 season. He has returned to Chicago and added his name to the long list of former Bears with a Sunday postgame show; he appears on NBC Sports Chicago with former teammates Lance Briggs and Alex Brown.
He continues to contribute to the Bears, accepting coach Matt Nagy’s offer to share wisdom with running backs David Montgomery and Kerrith Whyte after the Bears drafted them in April.
Now 33, the native of Lake Charles, La., spends much of his time doing charity and social-justice work. He has worked to improve relations between police and citizens on the South Side. Last fall Forte held a protest at the James R. Thompson Center to try to lessen the bail burden for people awaiting trial. The protest was part of Malcolm Jenkins’ and Anquan Boldin’s Players Coalition.
“They have a lot of different fronts that they are fighting against,” Forte told the Tribune’s Phil Thompson on Sept. 18. 2018. “We can as players kind of pick and choose whatever your passion is about. I’m all about helping anyone who has been wronged or injustice of any type.”
Running back Matt Forte ranked second in Bears history behind Walter Payton with 8,602 rushing yards.
Matt Forte high-fives fans before walking off the field following his final game as a Bear — a 24-20 loss to the Lions at Soldier Field on Jan. 3, 2016.