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An under-appreciated workhorse, Matt Forte retires from the NFL

One of the Bears’ greatest running backs ever in Forte is walking away from football. What he did with Chicago, and in the game itself, should be appreciated.

Divisional Playoffs - Seattle Seahawks v Chicago Bears
Forte was a worthy addition to the Bears’ running back tradition.
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

One of the best things you could say about Matt Forte the football player was to recognize how humble he was. This wasn’t someone that demanded the spotlight. This wasn’t a guy like other superstars that relished being outspoken. Forte, the running back and human being, embodied what it meant to let your game do the talking.

On Wednesday, in the most fitting Forte way possible - meaning a tweet in the middle of Scouting Combine week - he retired from the NFL after 10 seasons. Sometimes an afterthought in the national conversation of top running backs over the last decade, Forte was anything but. He didn’t feel the need to prop himself up. If one couldn’t see what special was unfolding any time he hit a football field, that was a mark of not paying attention.

A 2008 second-round pick out of Tulane, you knew the Bears had a budding talent in the palm of their hand from the get-go in Forte. A 123-yard performance with one touchdown in his NFL debut on “Sunday Night Football” against the Colts spoke to what Forte would do over the length of his career. Everyone watched him break off his first 50-yard run in primetime and immediately thought “looks like the Bears are set at running back again.”

That was who Forte was as a football player. When you least expected him to, and in actuality, even when you did see him coming: he would produce and burst out like no other. That was an example of supreme confidence.

As Forte eventually evolved to encapsulate half of the Bears’ offense through most of the early to mid-2010s, defenses couldn’t account for him tearing apart their game plans. When you have a 6-foot-1 running back that runs routes out of the backfield, splits out wide, and catches like a receiver, how is a defense reasonably expected to adjust? They’re not, and they can’t.

And that’s why Forte could produce at an elite level while being the focal point with no ideal compliment to take the load off of him across the entire Bears’ offense. The lack of a quality supporting cast around Forte through his eight years with the Bears helps shed a light on his production.

Think about the quarterbacks Forte played with his Bears’ tenure. There was game manager Kyle Orton during his rookie season when he exploded onto the NFL scene with 1,700-plus all-purpose yards. There was the talented but star-crossed and turnover prone Jay Cutler for most of the next seven years: where Forte helped take the load off of Cutler’s burden as a running back who could reasonably touch the ball 30 times a game. Cutler could use Forte as a balance to keep defenses honest and in all seriousness, as his No. 1 receiver until former Bears Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery came onto the scene.

Most impressively, there were the occasional backup quarterback stints such as a game against the Panthers that Todd Collins appeared in 2010: the last time the Bears made the playoffs. With Cutler sidelined due to a concussion then, Collins threw four interceptions and completed just six passes in his stead. Not to be deterred, the Bears scored 23 points in an eventual victory on the strength of 166 rushing yards and an average of 7.5 yards a carry from Forte.

That version of Carolina had no reason to fear Collins. In fact, for the most part, they humiliated him. All they had to worry about was Forte gashing them. As he did for all of his NFL career, that’s exactly what Forte accomplished. The silent, tall, and graceful runner left defenses like the Panthers reeling even when they put out all the stops to slow him down. It was games like this that exemplified the Bears’ great running backs on bad offenses’ tradition. Games like this where Forte was the only offensive threat that somehow managed to thrive regardless. That became a testament to the talent and effort he brought to the table.

To Forte’s credit he never complained about being overused or about not being used creatively enough. He did his job and did his best to help the Bears win.

Forte’s best was more than enough for one player.

That’s why it never made sense when Chicago reached an impasse with Forte in new contract negotiations back in 2012. He was their offense. He was everything they looked for in a running back. They couldn’t afford to find his replacement if they tried. The leverage was always in Forte’s hands, just as he quietly liked it. He knew his time would come and he didn’t pout. All he did was go back to work to keep himself in his famous tip-top shape that was necessitated by how much the Bears deployed him.

When the Bears released Forte in 2016, he finished as the franchise’s second-all time leading rusher with 8,602 yards. Second only to the first-ballot Hall of Famer Walter Payton. He finished seventh all-time in receiving yards with 4,116 yards. Second among running backs, to again, only Payton. And, in the most apt compliment to Forte, he missed only eight starts over the course of his Bears’ career. That came in light of at times averaging almost 350 touches a season. You couldn’t wear the machine-like Forte down if you tried, and that was a clear aspect of pride for the superstar.

Marshall, as boisterous as he was, once called Forte the “best all-around back” in recent years. That was in May 2016. What Marshall forgot to account for, was his two seasons with the Jets after being released by the Bears that off-season. With his two years in New York in account, since Forte’s debut in 2008 he led the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 14,468. One of the most prolific players the league has seen in some time despite all circumstances, Forte’s resume speaks for itself.

It’d be a stretch to call Forte the second greatest Bears’ running back strictly in terms of talent. That first distinction would belong to Gale Sayers, who had much of his career cut short by knee injuries. Then you’d consider names such as Payton before Forte. But, if we’re going off production, durability, and the ability to change a game for an offense like no other Bears’ runner before him: Forte unquestionably belongs in the conversation of distinguished Chicago running backs.

With regards to his output purely, Forte actually is the Bears’ second greatest tailback ever, bar none.

The Bears historically do two positions better than everyone else in football: linebacker and running back. For all of their faults otherwise, this team somehow always finds star linebackers and running backs.

The quiet Forte, in that respect, gets his own lengthy chapter in the Bears’ long historical record of runners. Because of his humility, Forte would downplay that status. Privately, he’d appreciate his grinding, versatile work being remembered and not having gone to waste in the slightest.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.