Ever since he first entered the league, Matt Forte has been completely outperforming and overachieving expectations. Five running backs were taken ahead of him in the 2008 NFL Draft, and yet Forte, a second-round pick, is the only one among them to remain his team’s starting running back through each of his first seven seasons. Since entering the league back in 2008, Forte is third in rushing yards and has the most yards from scrimmage in the entire NFL with 11,431 yards (an average of 1,633 per season, or 107 yards per game). Without a doubt, the most consistent, durable, and reliable Bear (and possibly best running back in the league) for the better part of the past decade has been Matt Forte. But with seven seasons under his belt, and playing in the least secure position in sports, running back, the question Bears fans should begin to ask themselves is, how much does the former Tulane product have left in the tank?
The Rule of 30
A pattern that has begun form among NFL running backs is the fact that most, no matter the talent or skill-set, begin to decline at the age of 30. Shaun Alexander rushed for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2005, at the age of 29, winning the league MVP in the process. By 2009 the former MVP hung up his jersey after rushing for just 1,636 yards and 11 touchdowns in the three years following.
After turning 30 in 2009, LaDainian Tomlinson never rushed for over 1,000 yards again, despite reaching that mark for eight straight seasons. He retired two years later.
Priest Holmes rushed for 27 touchdowns in 2003 at the age of 29, and despite blooming late in the NFL, he still couldn’t elongate his career, playing in just 19 games following his Pro Bowl season.
Where Does That Leave Forte?
In terms of receptions, carries, and time on the field, few players over the past two seasons have had a heavier workload than Matt Forte, let alone the past seven. His skill set after all, as a dominant receiver and runner, make Forte difficult to both guard and predict. Will his receiving skills (101 catches for 808 yards in 2014, each a career-high) allow for a long and sustainable career, or does the heavy workload since his rookie season ensure an imminent and precipitous decline? For answers I turn to former running backs for comparison.
Like Forte, Clinton Portis was drafted in the second round, and like Forte he dominated from Day One. However, after proving to be one of the most consistent and durable players in football for seven straight seasons from (2002-2008) Clinton Ports declined rapidly at the age of 28, playing in just 13 more games before retiring in 2011. Though he’s much more of a ground-and-pound runner than Forte, the two still have strikingly similar numbers in terms of overall yards per game. In fact, after seven years, Forte has racked up 11,431 yards from scrimmage, whereas Portis was at 11,108 yards from scrimmage at the same point in his career. While the numbers are similar hopefully Forte’s proclivity for catching passes out of the backfield has lessened the wear and tear he has endured.
Like Forte, Marcus Allen started his career with seven straight seasons of over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, however, unlike Portis, he was able to sustain his career for nine more seasons, racking up over 7,200 yards in the process. While it’s unreasonable to expect Forte to play until he’s 37, his style of play makes me optimistic that he has at least a few more good years left.
The final comparison I will make is to Marshall Faulk, a player who, like Forte, could dominant the game will both his rushing and receiving. Despite being a higher-caliber and heavier worked player than Forte through his first seven years (Faulk amassed an impressive 12,742 yards from scrimmage by year seven), Faulk continued, and in fact had a few of his better seasons in the twilight of his career. While I’m not comparing Forte to Faulk, as the two are completely different players, it should be encouraging that Faulk continued to produce year-after-year despite being severely overworked in both Indianapolis and St. Louis. Like Forte, Faulk was as much a threat as a receiver as he was a runner, as neither one carried the ball over 300 times in a season other than their rookie year.
I bring up these past NFL greats not to raise expectations for the rest of Forte’s career, but rather to show that at age 30 it remains to be seen what kind of player Forte will be. It’s certainly possible that his best seasons are behind us, but with a career-low of 1,434 yards from scrimmage in a season (95.6 yards per game) an abrupt decline for Forte, like Portis, seems unlikely barring injury. With a career record of (56-51) and just two career postseason games, I have no doubt that number 22 will remain hungry and aggressive as he continues to age. New Head Coach John Fox has gotten the most out of running backs Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno, and C.J. Anderson in recent years, and despite his age, I’m excited to see what the run-heavy coach has in store for Forte over the next couple of seasons.