In the plug-and-play world of NFL running backs, this would appear to be a marriage waiting to be arranged.
If Lamar Miller leaves the Dolphins via free agency — and nobody can be sure which way that will go — new coach Adam Gase has a history, and a mutual-admiration society, with an accomplished all-around back hitting the open market: Matt Forte.
Forte recently posted a message on Instagram revealing that the Bears do not intend to re-sign him. He turned 30 in December, a point of no return for many, but was tied for seventh in the NFL among running backs with 1,287 yards from scrimmage. He scored seven touchdowns.
“I feel like he’s still playing at a very high level,” Gase said of Forte in December, when he still was the Bears’ offensive coordinator.
Forte, meanwhile, has spoken about how much he enjoyed playing under Gase, even saying, “I love Adam Gase.”
Love? So is March 9, the first day free agents can sign, the wedding date?
Not so fast.
Beyond settling Miller’s status, several things would have to happen, including clearing one hurdle that may prove insurmountable. In an extensive interview with The Chicago Tribune last month, Forte was asked what he wanted out of his next contract aside from money.
“Definitely the winning part,” he said. “I’m going on eight years and I’ve been to the playoffs once.”
That’s one more trip than most Dolphins, a franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since 2008 and was 6-10 last season. Forte said he would lean on his agent, Adisa Bakari, when weighing options. Bakari did not return a message seeking a comment.
Of course, many players say they want to go with a contender entering free agency, before money steps in. Or reality, since the NFL is a buyer’s market when it comes to running backs.
Reality, from the Dolphins’ standpoint: They’d like to keep Miller, but there’s a question of whether they can afford him, especially with defensive end Olivier Vernon also eligible for free agency. The Dolphins might not be able to squeeze both ex-Hurricanes under the salary cap, and defensive ends are a hotter commodity.
Miller said he’d prefer to remain a Dolphin but also said he might be attracted to a team willing to make him their featured back, as opposed to the 12-14 carries a game he has gotten in Miami. The Cowboys, who lost DeMarco Murray a year ago, are said to be interested.
That would leave the Dolphins with no proven back on the roster. They like Jay Ajayi, but he’s unproven, never topping 48 yards in a game as a rookie last year. He might be the long-term answer, but is it a gamble the Dolphins are willing to take?
Bringing in Forte would give Ajayi a mentor. Forte was known in Chicago as a high-character guy from the moment he arrived, showing up as a rookie in 2008 in a suit. Then,12,718 yards from scrimmage later, he and the organization were making it clear this is a parting with mutual respect.
“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 wrote on Instagram. “My only regret is not being able to win a Lombardi trophy for the best fans in all of sports. I’m excited about the next chapter of my NFL career. But, Chicago will always be home. God Bless and Bear Down!”
Bears general manager Ryan Pace called Forte one of the Bears’ all-time greats, “a tremendous teammate,” and thanked him for his professionalism.
Forte’s statistics last season were almost identical to Miller’s, although he did miss three games, rare for a player who has missed only eight games in eight seasons. Forte had 898 rushing yards (to Miller’s 872), and 389 receiving (Miller: 397). Miller scored three more touchdowns and had a better per-carry average, 4.5 to 4.1. And he’ll soon turn 25.
Forte, 6-foot-2 and 218, downplayed the age factor, saying if a running back is 30, it’s unfair to say, “Every single running back falls off at that age.” He said, “That’s not true for every single person” and wondered, “How come everybody is not saying how old Adrian Peterson is?”
Here’s how old Peterson is: He’s about to turn 31 and is nine months older than Forte. But he rushed for 1,485 yards for Minnesota last season.
In 2014, Forte also caught 102 passes for 808 yards, becoming the first running back with more than 100 receptions in a season. He could be a valuable outlet for Ryan Tannehill, who has been sacked an NFL-high 184 times in four seasons.
“I feel lucky to be around a guy who is at an elite level in all three phases of a running back,” Gase said of Forte in December. “I’ve never been around that in my career. I know it hasn’t been that long, but he’s one of probably the best who has been able to do that in a game.”
So there are plenty of reasons the Dolphins could pursue Forte and one big reason Forte might not pursue the Dolphins. But if the Dolphins need any more of a push, there is one additional motivating factor in play: The team many are predicting will land Forte, because he’d fit so well into their system? The New England Patriots.