By Chris Emma–

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — There’s a stigma that comes with being a 30-year-old NFL running back, something the Bears’ Matt Forte knows all too well.

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“I’m dead,” Forte joked on Thursday, his 30th birthday.

Rest in peace? Not so much. Forte is still the same tremendous athlete, one who hasn’t shown the signs of dramatic decline that often ends the career of a running back. In fact, he remains one of the Bears’ most important players.

After missing three games with an MCL sprain, a freak injury suffered on Nov. 1 against the Vikings, he showed effectiveness Sunday against the 49ers, rushing for 84 yards and a touchdown while adding five catches for a shorthanded offense. On the season, he has 676 yards and three touchdowns in nine games, while adding 31 catches.

“He’s doing some things that I haven’t seen many running backs be able to do, because he’s so good in all three areas of the game at his position,” Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase said of Forte.

Forte has found longevity in his career in part because of a tremendous work ethic. He pushes himself hard in workouts to stay in top shape, even doing the famed Walter Payton hills workout.

Ever since being drafted out of Tulane in the second round of the 2008 draft, Forte hasn’t been the biggest or fastest running back, but he’s always been one of the best in the NFL. He’s most certainly earned that.

“The guy’s in unbelievable shape,” Gase said. “He came in this offseason ready to work. He’s shown us nothing but an elite player.”

When Forte was drafted, he set his sights on a long NFL career, knowing he would have to work for that. His hopes were to play 10 years, even looking toward 12 as a goal. Now, Forte is eight years in and ready for more.

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Questions loom where Forte will play the remainder of his career. His contract is up at the end of this 2015 season, meaning these final four regular-season games could be the last of his Bears career. He’s second to only Walter Payton on the franchise’s all-purpose yards list. Forte’s career in Chicago has been spectacular.

But Bears general manager Ryan Pace doesn’t owe Forte anything. The McCaskey family can offer a tip of the cap and bid farewell, should Pace opt for a different direction. It remains largely possible that happens, especially with rookie Jeremy Langford and second-year player Ka’Deem Carey bringing stability to the running back position.

While Forte could get a three- or four-year deal put on the table, it’s more likely he will get an offer of two years, taking him to the age of 32. If Forte has his way, he would be an effective 34-year-old player, wherever that may be.

“Twelve years is a long time for a running back — even 10,” Forte said, looking at his future.

The Bears could come forth with a two-year deal, but at what cost? Forte will surely have a market of suitors, many of whom would seem ready to offer quality money. It remains to be seen if Pace will be hesitant, especially given that running back has suddenly become a position of strength.

While Forte has benefited physically from receiving fewer carries per game — allowing his body to take less of a toll — both Langford and Carey have flourished in their chance to impress.

Forte has evaded the contract talks, speaking of optimism for his future. On Thursday, his 30th birthday, he was jovial in addressing a number that’s grim to most running backs.

“I feel like I’m so old,” Forte joked. “Yesterday, I was 29, running around practice. Today, it took me, like, one extra minute to get warmed up.”

Forte knows he’s far from dead and that he has more productive years left in the tank. So, rest in peace? No, rest easy, Matt.

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Chris Emma covers the Chicago sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.