Matt Forte has reached that dreaded age for running backs -- 30. In football-speak, it's the Big Three Oh-no.
His AARP membership card will be arriving shortly in the mail. Well, not really, but 30 has a stigma, and it attaches itself to the best of running backs, regardless of past production. In Forte's case, it's pronounced because he's coming off a career low in rushing yards.
Forte ignores the noise. He's ready to conquer the stereotype, confident there's still enough electricity in his legs to win an NFL rushing title. His inspiration is Hall of Famer Curtis Martin, who in 2004 won the rushing crown at 31 in his last full season with the New York Jets. He's the oldest player in history to do it, proof that a man's heart can conquer the date on a birth certificate.
"That's motivation for me personally, to strive to achieve that," said Forte, who signed with the Jets in March. "It just goes to show you all the cliché sayings aren't always true. It's not going to be easy -- it's a tough thing to do -- but there's definitely a lot of motivation in that respect."
Forte is only three years removed from his most prolific season, 2013, when he rushed for 1,339 yards for the Chicago Bears. That dropped to 1,038 the following season and 898 (in 13 games) the next, prompting the Bears to say goodbye in free agency. It's a young man's position, but the Jets saw enough in Forte to make him their No. 1 back, replacing the departed Chris Ivory.
Martin, for one, loves the move.
"Based on sheer talent, I think it's an upgrade, in my opinion," he said in a phone interview last week. "I don't mean any disrespect to Chris Ivory -- he's a really good running back -- but I think Forte is a better pure runner."
Martin met Forte at a Super Bowl and came away impressed by his humble demeanor. Forte plays the game the way Martin played it from 1995 to 2005, which is to say he's a consistent, durable star who doesn't act like a star. Martin carried himself with such humility that he used to help the equipment staff by picking up towels on the locker room floor. Unlike some ego-driven players, he never thought he was bigger than the game or the team.
Forte comes to New York with the same reputation. He'll be a great fit in the locker room. The big question is whether he can turn back the clock a year or two. Martin can appreciate his position. When he turned 30, he heard the whispers, too.
"By the time a running back makes it to 30 in the NFL, he can start to lose that fire to do everything that got you there, that enabled you to have the longevity to play until 30," said Martin, who ran for 1,697 yards in his signature season. "One of the things I tried to do was push down harder on the gas instead of letting up. At 30, some people start to take their foot off the gas pedal. They may begin to take certain things for granted. I had this goal in my mind. Every year, I came in like I was a rookie. That mentality kept me young.
"I think people can do even better at 30 because you get so much smarter," Martin continued. "I wasn't doing all the moves and the spins I did when I was a rookie or early in my career. I became more efficient as a runner. That's what takes place as you get older, the efficiency you have every time you get the ball."
Forte trained hard this offseason at his home in Chicago, participating in Pilates and running hills that in the winter months are used for sleigh riding. Fueled by his unceremonious separation from the Bears, Forte's objective is to prove he's still a No. 1 back.
"I watched [Martin] when he played, and it's awesome to play in his footsteps," Forte said. "Coming from Chicago, where you're playing in the footsteps of Walter Payton and Gale Sayers, you go from one good team with a great running back history to another. It's an honor for me to be here and to do that."
Payton and Martin are among only four players in history who eclipsed 1,500 yards in a season at 30 or older. Good role models for a newbie in that age group.