Justin Forsett's unlikely journey to a career year

Note: This story was published Monday morning and updated after Monday night's game.

Justin Forsett's dazzling performance Monday night was more than another chance to prove doubters wrong, it was a chance for the Baltimore Ravens' running back to show that he still plays in the NFL.

Forsett remembers reading the comments that followed Adam Schefter’s tweet announcing his release from the Jacksonville Jaguars in March.


“That wasn’t worth a tweet”

“According to my sources, we have never heard of this guy”

Eight months later, Forsett is enjoying one of the best seasons of any running back. He has gone from a little-known journeyman to the most valuable player for a Ravens team that is looking to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence.

Forsett helped the Ravens take another step toward that goal by rushing for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-27 win over the New Orleans Saints.

"It’s special," Forsett said during an on-field interview with ESPN after the game. "I put in a lot of work throughout my whole career, being in the shadows and just coming out here tonight just trying to show what I can do. And [head coach John] Harbaugh and the Ravens giving me a chance to do what I do, it’s a blessing."

It’s difficult to imagine where the Ravens would be if they hadn’t taken a flier on Forsett. In a season when the Ravens parted ways with the No. 2 rusher in franchise history (Ray Rice), they have one of the top rushing attacks in the NFL, primarily because of Forsett.

Breaking tackles and outrunning defenders, Forsett ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing yards (721) entering Week 12 and first in yards per carry (5.4). For a player who has had to grind it out throughout his career, he has made an impact this season with explosive plays. Only Dallas’ DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher, has had more runs over 20 yards than Forsett.

“I’m sure there are still some people who are surprised,” Forsett said recently. “I’m OK with surprising people.”

No one expected Forsett to have a career year. He acknowledges that he didn’t know if he had an NFL future this offseason.

After being released by the four-win Jaguars, Forsett started to think about life after football. It was about time to give up on that fleeting dream of becoming a starter in the NFL.

That’s what happens to most veteran running backs who are coming off the worst season of their career (31 yards on six carries) and aren’t immediately signed in free agency. Forsett began making inroads to a career in player development, so he could impact lives while remaining a part of the game.

"During the offseason, my future was kind of bleak,” Forsett said.

Landing with Ravens

Opportunity eventually came calling. Actually, it was Gary Kubiak, Forsett’s head coach in Houston, who was looking for more depth at running back in his first season as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator.

The Ravens had just missed on signing free agent Chris Johnson (who went to the New York Jets), and Kubiak vouched for Forsett. It was two years ago when Forsett averaged a career-best 5.9 yards per carry as a role player in Kubiak’s offense in Houston.

Not everyone with the Ravens was sold on Forsett initially.

“I didn’t see it,” Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome told the team’s website. “[Harbaugh] and Gary liked him, but when I watched the tape from Jacksonville, I didn’t see the same quickness Justin had shown earlier in his career. In the end, we trusted Gary that Justin was a good fit for the offense we were installing.”

When he signed with the Ravens in April for a one-year, veteran minimum deal, Forsett talked about carrying a chip the size of Texas on his shoulder. Forsett, who had been limited last season with a foot injury, soon began gaining attention in offseason spring workouts and training camp with unexpected burst and power.

At 5-foot-8, 197 pounds, he resembled a “poor man’s Darren Sproles.” But he let it be known that he doesn’t care for the label “scatback.”

"There's always going to be doubters," Forsett said. "There's always going to be people that want to limit me and put me in boxes. It's my job to go out and try to break them."

Still, one of the biggest surprise stories in the NFL wasn’t going to unfold by itself.

The abrupt release of Rice a day after the season opener -- which came soon after the elevator footage surfaced of him striking his then-fiancée -- led to an open competition at running back. The Ravens had planned to use a running back by committee with Forsett, Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro.

“All of the sudden with his play, [Forsett] said, ‘No, you’re going to play me,’” Kubiak said. “You have to give him the credit for that happening.”

Feel-good story

Forsett was a seventh-round draft pick in 2008, selected 178 spots after Rice in that draft. Of the 23 running backs drafted that year, only six remain in the league and Forsett is the only one past the third round. Gone are the likes of Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Kevin Smith and Steve Slaton.

In his rookie season, Forsett bounced around from Seattle to Indianapolis to Seattle again. In the past three years, he went from Houston to Jacksonville and now to Baltimore.

Forsett has probably accrued more airline mileage points than rushing yards in his career.

“You’ve been through a journey, the ups and downs, and able to persevere and be here,” Forsett said. “It’s a blessing. You know it can easily be taken away when you’ve been on a rough journey. There is definitely an appreciation.”

Forsett has been a mature influence in the Ravens’ locker room. He is considered one of the best character guys on the team, almost to point where you have trouble believing it.

He spent his bye week changing diapers and getting up early with his nearly 2-year-old son, Judah, so his wife could get a break. He even wrote a love song to her that he put on YouTube a couple of years ago.

Forsett tweets out reminders to vote for his teammates for the Pro Bowl, including his lead blocker Kyle Juszczyk, and never puts out ones for himself.

“He is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, whether you’re talking about in the locker room or in life,” said tight end Owen Daniels, who has been Forsett’s teammate with the Texans and Ravens.

Forsett made sure to credit his offensive linemen Monday.

"The (lanes) were big," he said. "The offensive line did a great job of making those lanes open for me, and I just tried to seize the moment."

Has Forsett ever done anything to tick anyone off?

“He’s ticked off some defenses,” Daniels said. “I’m sure there are some defenders who are mad at him for outrunning them or making them miss.”

Can he sustain it?

Forsett has never carried the ball more than 118 times in his previous six seasons. He’s already run the ball 155 times this season.

If there is one question left for Forsett to answer, it’s this one: Can he maintain this level of productivity and not wear down?

“He’s a tremendously conditioned player when he works out here,” Kubiak said. “He takes care of himself. I don’t see any reason for him not to keep going.”

Forsett has become a barometer for the Ravens’ success. When the Ravens rush for 120 yards or more as a team, they are undefeated (7-0). When they don’t, they are winless (0-4).

In the Ravens’ past four wins, Forsett has run for 111, 95, 112 and 182 yards.

“We’re getting down to the last six weeks, and you’re not saving much for anything, right? It’s time to go,” Kubiak said. “I know Justin wants to be out there every down, and if he can hold up, he’s probably going to be out there quite a bit.”

“I couldn’t have written this story any better,” Forsett said.