Big decisions face Bears after 1st season under Pace, Fox
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) The blue sleeveless ''Workhorse 22'' shirt hanging in Matt Forte's locker wasn't going with him.
The two-time Pro Bowl running back was leaving it behind as a memento and a reminder of the blood, sweat and tears he shed the past eight years for the Chicago Bears.
''You see how tattered and beat up and stuff (it is),'' Forte said. ''It's not like me. I'm still good.''
Not since the Bears drafted him in 2008, though, has his future been so in doubt. It's one of the big issues the organization needs to address after a last-place finish in the NFC North at 6-10.
Despite the losing record, the Bears believe they took a big step in their first year under general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox. They believe they laid the foundation for winning following a five-win meltdown in 2014.
Yet they still have a big job ahead of them, with some glaring holes and a roster that figures to have a decidedly different look. About one-third of the players have expiring contracts, with Forte and No. 1 receiver Alshon Jeffery topping the list.
They could also be in the market for offensive and defensive coordinators if Adam Gase or Vic Fangio land head coaching jobs.
''The atmosphere and the culture in the building just feels really good right now,'' Pace said.
Here are some things to know as the Bears try to establish themselves as contenders after missing the playoffs for the eighth time in nine years:
FORTE'S FUTURE: Forte has said he wants to stay with the team, but he isn't holding out hope.
The franchise's second all-time leading rusher behind Walter Payton, he ran for 898 yards and four touchdowns, and caught 44 passes for 389 yards and three more scores in 13 games. But he is also 30 and shared time with Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey.
Then again, Forte brings intangibles that would be missed.
''It's a huge part of it,'' Pace said. ''It really is, and especially what we're trying to emphasize, the type of players that we want here.''
DYNAMIC DUO: Assuming Jeffery stays, the Bears believe they could have a strong one-two receiver combination with a healthy Kevin White.
They thought they might have it this season. But the two never played together.
White missed the season because of a stress fracture in his left shin after being drafted out of West Virginia with the seventh pick. Jeffery was limited to nine games because of injuries and could be a candidate for the franchise player tag.
''Think we can be really good, especially with the receivers we've got coming back, and just the chemistry we have with each other,'' White said.
CUTLER CONNECTION: With or without Gase, Pace said the Bears have ''extreme confidence'' in quarterback Jay Cutler and plan to build the offense around him.
That's a big change from a year ago, when Pace and Fox waited until March to announce that he would be the starter.
Cutler posted the highest rating of his career (92.3) and cut his interceptions from 18 last year to 11 in 15 games. He did that even though Jeffery, White, Eddie Royal, Marquess Wilson and tight end Martellus Bennett all missed time if not the entire season.
If Gase leaves, Cutler would work with his sixth coordinator since he was traded from Denver to Chicago in 2009.
''I was going to ask you guys today if you would write some bad articles on him,'' Cutler said after Sunday's game. ''Maybe we can cool him off some.''
He was joking, of course. Fox, however, was serious when the possibility of Cutler regressing under a new coordinator was broached.
''Let me make this clear, our systems are our systems,'' he said. ''They're not any individual's systems, they are our systems. Our systems aren't changing: offense, defense or special teams.''
TAKE IT AWAY: The Bears used to take pride in their ability to force turnovers when Lovie Smith was the coach. They had only 17 takeaways, fifth fewest in the league, this season.
''It comes down to adding playmakers all over the field on defense,'' Pace said.
PICKING PIECES: The Bears figure to be active in free agency. But Pace realizes their success largely hinges on the draft, a major sticking point for Chicago in recent years.
The fact that four of Pace's six selections last year - nose tackle Eddie Goldman, center Hroniss Grasu, Langford and safety Adrian Amos - got significant looks is at least promising. This year's draft, starting with the 11th pick, figures to be an important one for Chicago given all its needs.
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