Former Bears fullback Jason McKie knew Matt Forte would be something special in his first game.
It was Sept. 7, 2008, against the Colts, who were hosting their first game at Lucas Oil Stadium. In the first quarter, Forte ripped off a 50-yard touchdown run straight through the Colts’ defense.
But McKie remembers something else: Forte’s resolve.
Forte was hit hard by Colts safety Bob Sanders in the second quarter and left the game. But it was a brief absence.
Forte finished with 141 total yards — leading the team in carries and catches — and became a promising young star in the Bears’ 29-13 victory.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this kid’s got heart. He almost got knocked out,’ ” said McKie, who was Forte’s fullback in 2008 and 2009. “He came back and made plays. I thought, ‘This kid has it.’ ”
Now it’s an “it” the Bears have to replace. The club will not re-sign Forte after eight memorable seasons, a decision that became official Friday.
It’s a decision that general manager Ryan Pace might regret if Forte signs with a contender and produces like he always has. The Packers, Patriots, Seahawks and Cowboys could be possible landing spots.
But it’s also a move that says plenty about the Bears’ direction under Pace and coach John Fox.
The club is not only ready to turn the load over to Jeremy Langford in his second season, but it also feels confident that Fox’s ways will be able to compensate for any intangible voids at Halas Hall left by Forte’s departure.
“When you look at what [Forte] brings as far as leadership in the locker room, that to me would maybe be the thing that keeps him here because he is an important part of the team and the players look up to him,” said Greg Gabriel, the Bears’ former college scouting director, who was with the team when Forte was drafted. “You need some veteran leadership on a young team.”
The Bears easily could have afforded Forte. They are projected to have more than $50 million in salary-cap space. Parting with Forte suggests that Pace is thinking long-term. Langford needs the room to grow. It’s also an indication that the Bears will spend their resources on other positions.
First on Pace’s agenda is finding common ground with receiver Alshon Jeffery on a lucrative, long-term deal, possibly using the franchise tag as a point in discussions. It could be similar to the deals other big-name receivers recently have received.
After Jeffery, Pace should eye the defense, which was respectable in 2015 but still lacks playmakers at every level. An interior offensive lineman would help, and a tight end could be needed if the team parts ways with Martellus Bennett.
In January, Pace promised to be “more targeted” and to “spread out our resources” in free agency. Pace’s goal is to take the best players available in the draft. There are backs to consider in the middle rounds, such as Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon.
“They’ve got a number of needs they’ve got to take care of,” Gabriel said.
Either way, a prevailing storyline for next season will be whether Langford, Ka’Deem Carey and the rest of the backfield will be able to match Forte’s production. Forte led the Bears with 898 rushing yards in 2015, despite dealing with a sprained knee ligament.
“As far as a hard runner, Langford, at this time, is probably a little bit more physical, but he can’t do everything Matt can do as far as being a receiver and a blocker,” Gabriel said. “Will he get better? Absolutely. But I don’t know if he’ll ever be as equal as a receiver because Matt was as good as there was in the league in years.”
Gabriel said he believes Forte has two strong years left in him. His age should only be part of the evaluation.
“When you look at football character, how the guy prepares and takes care of his body, Matt Forte is as good as it comes,” Gabriel said. “He’s just an outstanding person and an outstanding back.”
McKie envisions big things for Forte’s next team.
“They’re going to get a motivated Matt Forte, who feels like he’s being cast off and now feels like he has something new to prove,” McKie said. “I’m excited to see the new team that he’s going to. They just got better and probably won two, three or four more games.”
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