By Chris Emma--
(CBS) Matt Forte's farewell to Chicago, written with such dignity, was anything but surprising.
The 2015 season was in a way a long goodbye between Forte and the Bears, from training camp in Bourbonnais to his final walk off Soldier Field in a Bears uniform. Forte was able to leave the organization after eight seasons with a great deal of respect.
Last week was marked by Forte returning from Santa Clara and his viewing of Super Bowl 50 to the news from Bears general manager Ryan Pace that Forte wouldn't return to Chicago in 2016. Unlike former general manager Phil Emery's embarrassing fallout with Brian Urlacher, this was conducted differently. Pace didn't throw out some phony-baloney offer that would've been insulting, and he didn't mince words. The Bears were simply moving on from one of their all-time great players.
Pace and his front office kept tight-lipped in the aftermath, allowing Forte to have his space and make the news official on his own. There was no leak, and the team deferred to Forte in saying goodbye. He took to social media and expressed his gratitude.
"I will remain forever grateful for my time spent in Chicago and being able to play for an organization with such a rich history," Forte said in his farewell statement.
And there it was, handled with grace by both sides. Any prevailing bitterness -- something certainly natural in this case -- was hidden away. Forte knew this was coming from the moment contract talks with Pace broke down last offseason. He joked during the countless media sessions that he wasn't dead and gone, but it was known to all he would be moving on.
The Bears are going in a different direction under the leadership of Pace, a bright football mind by all accounts. Pace is bringing in his own personnel, allowing a young talent like Jeremy Langford to flourish as the feature back. He didn't owe a 30-year-old running back anything for his eight outstanding seasons.
"Matt is one of the all-time great Bears and did an excellent job for us on and off the field last season," Pace said of Forte. "He was a tremendous teammate. We thank him for his professionalism and wish him the very best as he continues his career."
Look for the Bears to add one more running back to the likes of Langford and Ka'Deem Carey, most likely through the free-agent market. Ronnie Hillman, Reggie Bush and Chris Ivory loom as intriguing names to watch. It's also possible that Pace could pick a back in the draft, though the team has much more pressing needs elsewhere.
Next up for Pace will be critical decisions on the futures of receiver Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett. It seems most likely that Jeffery will be given the franchise tag, forced to prove he can stay healthy in 2016. Bennett's still under contract through 2016, but his outspoken nature became the kind of disruption Pace won't tolerate -- see the trade of receiver Brandon Marshall for reference. A trade of Bennett stands entirely possible, in part pending the free-agent status of Zach Miller.
But the focus of this past weekend was on Forte, a man who was criminally underrated from a national scale and beloved locally. News of Forte's goodbye wasn't surprising by any means, but it hit Bears fans hard. He was a reliable force in the backfield, bringing competence to bad offenses.
Forte's next stop will likely be with a contender. Sources close to Forte believe he will lean toward joining a team ready to make a Super Bowl run. Forte has stated that money isn't the concern in his third contract. Possible fits for Forte include the Packers, Patriots, Seahawks and Cowboys, among the list of many teams that will have interest in the versatile running back.
"My only regret is not being able to win a Lombardi trophy for the best fans in all of sports," Forte said. "I'm excited about the next chapter of my NFL career. But, Chicago will always be home. God Bless and Bear Down!"
During eight terrific seasons in Chicago, Forte was as consistent as they come. He trails only Walter Payton in many franchise records, including rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. That's a credit to his dedicated work ethic.
Forte was given the go-ahead to bid farewell on his own terms, expressing how dearly he loves Chicago and the Bears organization. So closed a chapter cherished between the two and brought the beginning of what's next.
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