Well, that was just a tad awkward.
The Chicago Bears announced their two Piccolo Award winners Tuesday morning at a formal ceremony at the PNC Center at Halas Hall, recognizing running back Matt Forte and cornerback Kyle Fuller for their combination of courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor.
Only Forte wasn’t in attendance to accept the honor, voted on by teammates. And presumably, he’ll continue to keep his distance from Halas Hall at this stage of the offseason, even with the Bears opening their voluntary April minicamp later Tuesday in Lake Forest.
Forte has been absent from the strength and conditioning phase of the team’s offseason program to this point and seems ready to engage in a staring contest with the Bears front office. Entering the final year of his contract, Forte and his agent are lobbying for an early extension. And without one, the standout running back has prepared to detach himself from team activities as a means of creating leverage.
Bears owner George McCaskey downplayed the awkwardness of Forte’s absence from Tuesday’s Piccolo Awards Ceremony, an event the organization and the McCaskey family holds in deep regard.
"To me, it’s like the guys deciding not to go to the draft,” McCaskey said. “That’s an intensely personal decision and I think that decision should be respected.”
Still, the tension between Forte and the organization may not dissipate quickly. McCaskey said he couldn’t say the level of communication the standout running back has had with his new general manager Ryan Pace and new head coach John Fox.
“I’m leaving that up to them,” McCaskey said.
Forte did send along a statement of gratitude to the Bears for his Piccolo Award, read aloud Tuesday by Pat McCaskey: "I'd like to accept the Piccolo Award with the utmost respect and humility. Thank you to all my teammates that thought I was so deserving of this award that they voted for me. It was an honor to be selected as this year’s winner. But as you may know, success doesn’t come solely on one’s shoulders. So with that being said, I’d like to thank my Lord and savior Jesus Christ for the health, strength and many blessings that he has given me. Last but not least, thank you to my teammates for helping in my success on and off the field. God bless and Bear Down."
Forte also posted a response explaining his absence to Instagram on Tuesday afternoon alongside a video of himself speed training.
"So with all these media reports saying I'm skipping "voluntary" W/O to leverage a contract it's time to set the record straight. If the Bears want to give me a contract ext. they will; if they don't they won't. I'm not mad or holding a grudge," he wrote. "I don't operate like that...I've come to realize that this year along with each reception or carry might be my last in a Bears uniform. So with that being said its all LOVE Chicago. #ialwaysshowup"
Since signing a four-year, $32 million deal in 2012, Forte has been a true pro, a low-maintenance, durable and productive running back who has earned respect from all across the organization.
In his seven seasons in Chicago, Forte has amassed 11,431 yards from scrimmage and 57 touchdowns. Last season, he became just the second player in league history to top 1,000 rushing yards and 100 receptions in the same season.
But now Forte has entered the final year of his current deal and wants the Bears to prove their loyalty with an extension.
His participation and investment over the next seven-and-a-half weeks – or lack thereof – should prove telling as the team proceeds through this week’s mini-camp practices, three weeks of organized team activities and finally another mandatory mini-camp in mid-June.
How often will Forte be around? And what will he say publicly about his contract situation when given the chance?
For now, the Bears have yet to put any significant heat on Forte for his absence. “That’s a decision that Matt has got to make,” McCaskey said. “His production has been fantastic and he’s a valuable part of the organization and we’re looking forward to getting him in here.”