Forte hit the ground run­ning as a rookie RB

Ver­sa­tile run­ning back held down po­si­tion for sev­eral sea­sons

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO SPORTS - By Will Larkin

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.”

AN­THONY SOUFFLE/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Run­ning back Matt Forte ranked sec­ond in Bears his­tory be­hind Wal­ter Pay­ton with 8,602 rush­ing yards.

NUCCIO DINUZZO/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

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.

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