Bears, Star RB Forte at Odds Over Contract

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte(notes)distinguishes himself at his craft by visualizing what lies ahead.

Known for his patient running style, Forte is one of the NFL’s most resourceful players despite playing behind one of the sketchier offensive lines, ranking high in yards after contact and yards after catch en route to a league-high 1,091 yards from scrimmage.

Matt Forte is in the final season of his four-year deal with the Bears.
(US Presswire)

But as he approaches the midway point of his fourth NFL season, he recognizes the frailty of his situation.

“Running backs, as we know, you get into your prime around 25 years old and after that you have some pretty good years left,” Forte said. “Then once you get old, you still may feel good, but then they say you’re old.”

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He’ll turn 26 in December, when he’ll near the end of his four-year, $3.7 million rookie contract with the Bears. A second-round pick in 2008, Forte makes $600,000 this season, the league minimum for a player with his NFL experience. His current backup, Marion Barber(notes), is making $2.25 million this season, and his previous backup, Chester Taylor(notes), walked away with $7 million because the Bears terminated his four-year deal after just one season in September.

Forte is on pace to threaten Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson’s record of 2,509 yards from scrimmage set in 2009. But he’s also on pace to receive the Bears’ franchise tag, a one-year contract projected to be worth between $7.5 million and $8 million for 2012.

“The franchise tag certainly is not a good solution,” Forte said. “Franchise tags are reserved for a team’s top player. If you think I’m a top player, worthy of the franchise tag, why not extend me an offer for a long-term deal?”

That’s the multi-million dollar question.

Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said his position hasn’t changed.

“Our intent was to do a long-term deal, and it still is,” Angelo said. “We did our best, prior to the season. It didn’t work, unfortunately. We have options, based on the CBA, as all other teams do.

“It’s not sitting here reading tea leaves. Our intent is to do a long-term deal. But I can’t tell you when and how. Certainly, we’re not going to lose a quality player.”

The Bears have been one of the league’s more proactive teams in re-signing players to extensions. But Angelo has become more wary of that approach, one of the reasons he shipped Greg Olsen(notes), a 2007 first-round pick, to the Carolina Panthers because he the tight end was pushing for a long-term deal.

Several deals have haunted Angelo.

Matt Forte ran for 145 yards and a score in Chicago's 24-18 victory over Tampa Bay in London.

In June 2007, the Bears handed Nathan Vasher(notes) a five-year, $28 million extension after the cornerback turned in one Pro Bowl season and intercepted 16 passes in three seasons. But he started just 11 games in the next three seasons before he was released in March 2010.

In June 2008, the Bears signed Tommie Harris(notes) to a four-year, $40 million extension after the defensive tackle was selected to his third consecutive Pro Bowl and collected a career-high eight sacks during the 2007 season. But his production – largely due to knee injuries – dramatically slipped, and he was released after mustering just 13 tackles and a career-low 1½ sacks in 2010.

During training camp, Angelo insisted the key was to find a “common ground,” and warned that extensions are tougher because “agents normally look at the UFA [unrestricted free-agent] market to set their counts.”

“But [Forte’s] not a UFA,” Angelo said.

Angelo and Forte’s agent, Adisa Bakari, declined to comment on specifics of the negotiations.

But the Bears’ best offer reportedly included $13 to $14 million in guarantees, far below what other top running backs recently received. DeAngelo Williams(notes) got $21 million in guarantees from the Panthers, Adrian Peterson got $36 million from the Minnesota Vikings and Chris Johnson got $30 million from the Tennessee Titans.

Running backs' production since 2008
Adrian Peterson Vikings 1,127/ 5,239 116/ 1,027 1,243/ 6,266 51
Chris Johnson Titans 1,032/ 4,900 164/ 1,168 1,196/ 6,068 39
Matt Forte Bears 935/ 3,908 209/ 1,914 1,144/ 5,822 28
Ray Rice Ravens 783/ 3,502 207/ 1,904 990/ 5,406 21
Frank Gore 49ers 812/ 3,684 153/ 1,302 965/ 4,986 31
DeAngelo Williams Panthers 651/ 3,356 72/ 495 723/ 3,851 29
Most yards from scrimmage, 2011
Matt Forte Bears RB 7 1,091 162 6.7
Fred Jackson Bills RB 7 1,074 159 6.8
Steve Smith Panthers WR 8 936 48 19.5
Adrian Peterson Vikings RB 8 923 183 5.0
LeSean McCoy Eagles RB 7 892 158 5.6
Ray Rice Ravens RB 7 862 148 5.8
Ryan Mathews Chargers RB 7 851 141 6.0
Arian Foster Texans RB 6 849 157 5.4
Wes Welker Patriots WR 7 843 58 14.5
Maurice Jones-Drew Jaguars RB 8 825 178 4.6

“The offer was turned down because, in our opinion, it doesn’t reflect his value,” Bakari said. “We’ve said that all along. At the end of the day, in this business, whether they be restricted free agents or unrestricted, when it comes to a contract extension, and it comes to assessing a value to a player, the primary thing is production.”

Since 2008, Forte’s production has been topped by only Peterson and Johnson. Peterson has 1,243 carries and catches for 6,266 total yards, while Johnson has 1,196 for 6,068 yards. Forte has 1,144 carries and catches for 5,822 total yards.

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Williams, meanwhile, has 723 touches for 3,851 total yards. Part of the disparity between Forte and Williams is that Forte hasn’t missed a single NFL game, while Williams has missed 13 since 2008.

Shaun Alexander didn't come close to matching his MVP campaign of 2005.
(Getty Images)

“The running back position is the most physically demanding on the field. Everyone acknowledges that,” Forte said. “So to continue to give me the touches I’ve had, since my rookie year, but not award me a long-term contract sends the message that you’re OK grinding me into a pulp.”

While he hasn’t explicitly stated a reason, Angelo is reluctant to make a hefty investment at running back. The yield can be troublesome, because the decline of a running back can be dramatic.

The Seattle Seahawks signed Shaun Alexander, the reigning league MVP after the 2006 season, to an eight-year, $62 million deal that included $15 million in guarantees. But in the next two seasons, Alexander didn’t come close to 1,000 rushing yards and averaged 3.5 yards per carry.

After Edgerrin James became the Indianapolis Colts’ all-time leading rusher in just seven seasons, they let him walk away and sign a four-year, $30 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals in March 2006. Although he topped 1,000 rushing yards twice for the Cardinals, James wasn’t nearly as explosive, averaging a modest 3.6 yards per carry, with his longest run just 35 yards in 45 games.

Bakari bristles at any mention of decline of players at the position based on age. Forte, after all, is 25.

“You have to measure production against the production of other players, and try to, from that, discern the value,” Bakari said. “But there are other factors like age, and health, and does the player help the team win. “All those work in Matt’s favor.”

Before the Bears played the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football last month, Angelo told reporters that he “anticipated Matt having a great season like he’s having.” But Forte has referenced in several interviews that the Bears don’t view him as an “elite running back.”

Through seven games, though, Forte has accounted for 43.6 percent of the Bears’ yards from scrimmage. Since the 1970 merger, only four players have accounted for a higher percentage for a single season, led by O.J. Simpson, whose 2,073 yards from scrimmage was 47.9 percent of the Buffalo Bills’ total in 1973.

But the Bears are in Year 2 of an offense headed by Mike Martz, who engineered “The Greatest Show on Turf” in St. Louis. “There aren’t many Matt Fortes,” former running back Marshall Faulk told the Chicago Sun-Times in September. “I warn the Chicago Bears: If you think you can just find another guy to play in this offense, then this could end up being trouble for you because it’s not easy.”

Faulk explained that Martz demands versatility from his running back, calling on him to run inside and outside, protect the quarterback, and catch passes out of the backfield and split outside as a receiver.

It's not surprising that Jay Cutler votes Matt Forte as the NFL's best running back. "Look at what he can do on first, second and third down in the passing game and the running back, inside and outside," Cutler said.
(Getty Images)

Asked if Forte is the best running back in the NFL, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) recently said, “It’s not even close.

“Look at what he can do on first, second and third down in the passing game and the running back, inside and outside.”

Perennial Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes) suggested after the Bears’ victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London – when Forte compiled 183 combined yards – that the running back was the league’s MVP.

“If he’s not the best player in the NFL right now,” Urlacher said, “I don’t know who is.”

Players are usually careful about lobbying on behalf of teammates angling for contracts, and the Bears have endured more drama to that end than most clubs. Urlacher and weakside linebacker Lance Briggs(notes) have had well-documented run-ins with Angelo over their salaries.

In March 2007, Briggs insisted he’d “played my last snap” for the Bears, but he played at a Pro Bowl level that season and received a six-year, $36 million contract the following offseason. In September, Briggs and his agent Drew Rosenhaus formally asked the Bears for a trade, after the club spurned his request for another raise.

Briggs hasn’t missed a start, and he leads the team with 71 tackles – 16 more than the next closest teammate.

“I applaud Forte,” Briggs wrote on his Twitter account. “Every down he is out there is a risk to injury. In football, tomorrow is not guaranteed.”

Veteran cornerback Charles Tillman(notes) said Forte has been the MVP of the Bears, and he’s torn on the running back’s dilemma.

“It is complicated,” Tillman said, “and I don’t like to get into it. But the only thing I’ll say is, each week, he’s proving, play after play, how good and how valuable he is to this team. When you perform well, you should be compensated. Vice versa, when we don’t perform, we’re out the door.”

Forte’s contract status is one of the team’s biggest distractions. As the Bears return from a bye and prepare for a playoff push, the club could engender goodwill in the locker room by rewarding Forte with an extension. Angelo, though, insists he won’t be swayed by the opinion of players.

“They can say what they want,” Angelo said. “If you let emotion rule you’re thinking, you will last about as long as weather vane in a hurricane. It just doesn’t work that way.”

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There is also a public movement in support of Forte. There’s a “Pay Matt Forte” Twitter account, as well as a few “Pay Forte” Facebook pages.

“I appreciate the support,” Forte said. “Obviously, I’m doing something right for everybody to support me that way. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”

It’s unclear what figure Forte was pushing for before this season. But there’s no question the price tag has gone up. “The longer we wait,” Bakari said, “the more complicated it gets to get something done.”

For Forte, though, he has to stay healthy. He has insurance to protect him from a career-ending injury, and he said he won’t play scared.

“I’m going to keep playing like I’ve been playing, since the beginning,” Forte said. “Like I said, it’s up to them what happens from here. I’m just going to continue to play, hopefully continue to play well and hopefully stay injury free.”

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