I'm anxious to think about something other than Sunday. So, rather than dwelling on the past, I want to consider the future. The Chicago Bears have an interesting decision ahead of them. When Matt Forte's contract is up, he will be 30 years old and have over 2,000 carries. Given his age and mileage, there's a line of thinking that argues the Bears need to thank Matt for the memories and move on. There has even been talk that we should trade him. I don't agree, and it has to do more with pragmatism than it does with sentiment. First, though, I want to look at the case against aging running backs.
There are three big, well-documented milestones in a running back's career. The first is age. After 27, a typical running back sees his production decline. ESPN claims that for most running backs the falloff is about 15% by 28 and as much as 40% by 30. On the other hand, Football Perspective places the average falloff as starting at 26, but it's just as dramatic, with only a handful remaining productive past 29. Forte is 30, so he has passed this mark already.
The second milestone is the total number of carries. After 1800 carries, a running back sees his production go down. How much it goes down is a little bit arguable, but a decrease of nearly 20% in the year after having 1800 carries is a reasonable estimate. Forte had 1817 carries at the end of last season. Uh oh.
Now, before continuing it's important to point out that when it comes to passing receptions by a running back, there's very little evidence to suggest that these touches ‘count against' the endurance and longevity of the player. In fact, a few running backs have managed to extend their careers by remaining—or becoming—proficient in the passing game.
That's an important bit of clarification because the third milestone is the most dramatic. After a season with 370 carries or more, a running back is seldom the same again. Once more, a few exceptional athletes stand out, but unless the back's name is Dickerson, Tomlinson, Smith, or Payton, a dropoff of at least 20% is to be expected after a 370-carry season. Forte has...never had a 370-carry season? Has only had one season over 300 carries? Huh. Not so bad.
So, on that positive note, let's talk about Matt Forte. Through his first five seasons (when he turned 27), Forte had a hair over 4.2 yards per carry and around 72 yards a game. Afterward, Forte had roughly 4.3 yards per carry and around 76 yards a game. He went from having .34 rushing touchdowns per game to having .45 rushing touchdowns per game. In other words, Forte seems to have overcome the first milestone. It's not that he has remained productive, it's that he has actually gotten a bit better. In fact, If Forte were to find his production from the last 38 games drop by 15%, he would be at 3.6 yards per carry, 65 yards per game, and .38 touchdowns per game. That's better than his 2009 season, and at least in the ballpark of his 2010 season. So far, Matt is looking like one of those special running backs who doesn't succumb to age quite so badly.
Second, let's talk about the 1800-carry rule. This is obviously the first season he has had on the other side of that barrier, but so far it's looking good. He has averaged more yards per carry this year than he had last year, and his yards per game are at a career-high level. Of course, so are his attempts per game. It's possible that Forte is going to fall off the 1800-carry cliff and we're still in the early stages of the decline. If so, there's not a lot of sign of it yet. Let's call this one a push, though, since there's not enough data. I think there's reason for cautious optimism, though.
Finally, there's the 370-carry barrier. This is a big one, and it's significant that Forte has never crossed it. In fact, he's only crossed the 300-carry barrier once, and it was in his rookie season. He's on pace to cross 300 carries again, this year, but he should still come in under 340 carries. Why does that matter? It matters because about two-thirds of all of those ‘washed up' 30-year-old running backs were not just old—they were players who had, in fact, had at least one season with 340 carries or more. A lot of them had at least 340 carries multiple time, and the players whose declines are so dramatic were actually the ones who had at least one season with 370 carries. I'm not going to say that age isn't a factor for running backs, but it does seem like the real issue with age has at least as much to do with total numbers of carries and the likelihood of being run into the ground for at least a season than it does with the numbers on a birth certificate. As the saying goes, it's not the years—it's the mileage.
So far, if Matt Forte were a conventional running back, there would be reason to be optimistic that he will be one of the outliers, one of the men who doesn't see a decline. Matt Forte is not a conventional running back, however. This quick overview has left out his receiving game. The team has already moved him in this direction. For his career, he's at 4.1 receptions per game. There's an interesting split, though, in that in the first five seasons of his career he was at 3.6 receptions per game, and in the last two-and-a-third seasons, he's over 5 receptions per game. He's still at over 8 yards a reception, too . In other words, Forte has a part of his game that is less vulnerable to decline, and it's a part of his game that has been expanding as he has gotten older.
All of this means that Matt Forte, on the field, is worth the reinvestment. Obviously, I'm not saying the Bears should sign him to a 7-year deal or hand over $30 million. Still, the potential is there on the field to merit a real payday for #22 that is likely to pay off for the Bears, as well.
What about Matt Forte off the field, though? He's in his eighth season, and more than his playing style is developing. This year, he was voted captain for the first time in his career. Locker rooms need voices of experience, and on offense those voices are not going to come from Bellamy (26), Wilson (23), or Grasu (24)—even when the last one is active. Kyle Long is an awesome presence, but he's only in his third season.
If we only look at what "old" Matt Forte has done (after he turned 27), we see a running back who is not in the decline. Still, even if we assume that time does catch up and he does lose a step, only 80% of the rushing average of last two-and-a-third seasons would be about 970 yards per season. Combine that with an average production of 670 yards in the passing game, and he's still giving us more than 1600 yards from scrimmage each season. If in addition to those yards he also contributes to locker room stability over the next three years, isn't that worth a new contract?
The mother ship gives us an account of how locker rooms need that voice of veteran leadership. If the Bears do succeed in getting younger, where is the guidance for these new players going to come from? How about the running back with the second-most yards from scrimmage in franchise history? How about the two-time pro-bowler? I'm not arguing that past accolades merit a future contract. I am, instead, suggesting that what Forte offers the Bears right now is enough to earn the man another contract.
Barring catastrophe or truly outrageous demands, the Bears need to build around Forte going into the future.