Four Downs: Will Bears tag Forte?

February, 2, 2012
2/02/12
10:48
AM ET
Matt ForteJeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT/Getty Images Will Matt Forte hold out if the Bears put the franchise tag on him?
The Bears unveiled the successor to Jerry Angelo on Monday when Phil Emery was introduced as general manager. He returns to Halas Hall, having spent seven seasons with the Bears, including a brief overlap with Lovie Smith.

Traditionally a new GM wants to hire his own coach, but the McCaskey family made that decision before Emery was even hired, declaring that Smith will be on the job at the start of the 2012 season. After that it's up to Emery, who has the authority to hire and fire the head coach.

Does Emery's familiarity with Smith bode well for the coach and his future with the Bears? And will the Bears put the franchise tag on Matt Forte or work out a long-term deal before the Feb. 20 deadline?

Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: Lovie Smith's status beyond 2012 is more secure with the hiring of Phil Emery over the other candidates.


Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Smith needs to make the playoffs. Another failure to reach the postseason would mark the fifth time in six years the Bears were on the outside looking in under Smith. It can't happen. Emery can talk all he wants about admiring Smith's leadership, intelligence and passion, but mark my words, Emery will be hiring a new head coach if the Bears don't win more games. Every general manager wants to hire their own head coach. Emery might have been forced into this relationship, but he does not have to stay in it forever.

[+] EnlargeLovie Smith
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesLovie Smith is highly regarded among his peers and new GM Phil Emery.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. Contrary to the sentiment locally, Smith is highly regarded among his peers and Emery, and it's not hard to see why. Smith has been able to do more with less throughout his tenure, winning three division titles and taking the Bears to a pair of NFC title games over eight years. All Smith has to do to maintain his standing as the NFL's fourth-longest tenured coach is to continue fielding the same types of teams he's produced throughout his tenure: physical, hard-nosed groups that put forth maximum effort regardless of the circumstances. Emery will take care of the club's talent deficiencies, and that will only enable Smith to do his job even better. One of the most attractive aspects to the GM job for Emery was the consistency within the coaching staff. Emery won't want to disrupt that by bringing in a new coach. Besides that, it's highly unlikely Smith will give Emery a reason to go that route. Smith's ability to lead the Bears and Emery's talent-evaluation acumen will only strengthen the coach's job security in my estimation.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Sure seems to be, not just because of Emery’s brief past history with Smith when both were with the Bears when Smith was first hired, but because of Emery’s seeming need to blend in rather than rock the boat. He spoke of the importance of “consistency of teaching,” in his introductory press conference, saying that teams with less turnover on the coaching staff played faster. It would be a major upset if the Bears don’t extend Smith under Emery’s regime.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Emery wasn’t going to start his press conference by being a podium tough guy and challenge the incumbent coach, but if you listened closely he sounds amenable to long-terming Lovie. When I asked him what changed from when he left the Bears in 2004, five months after Smith took over, he said continuity. He said guys play faster when they’re comfortable. He also said that he will finalize draft plans with Smith. Sounds like he loves Lovie. I’m not sure Jason Licht would have been as amenable.


Second Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears will franchise Forte.


Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Perhaps the Bears eventually do work out a long-term deal with Forte. But hammering out such a complex and contested contract might take time. For that reason, it seems likely the Bears will slap the franchise tag on Forte in the allotted time period to do so according to league rules. However, the Bears could always lift the tag and sign Forte to a new deal. That should be both parties' goal moving forward.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Kyle Terada/US PresswireBears president Ted Phillips said the team does not intend to let Matt Forte hit the open market.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. It sure sounded that way during Emery's introductory press conference on Monday, when he said, "It is a tool that has been collectively bargained that is fair to the player and fair to the club" when asked specifically about Forte and the franchise tag. More than likely ownership -- feeling stung by the bad public relations from last season's contentious negotiations -- increases the original offer submitted to Forte before the start of the 2011 season. But it's difficult to gauge whether Forte will accept the deal or opt to play one year under the tag. There's a chance Forte might feel so beaten down by all he's been through during negotiations that he'll accept the club's next offer. But that's highly unlikely given the stance Forte has taken since negotiations broke down. So that means the franchise tag is the next destination for the team and Forte. "In terms of using franchise tags or where we're at in that process, that's an internal manner," Emery said Monday. "We won't discuss those things. We won't discuss contract status of a player, where he's at on our team in terms of our needs and where his talent is. Those are internal matters that we will not discuss just from a competitive aspect, and now showing our opponent our cards." Is the opponent in this case Forte's agent?

Melissa Isaacson Fiction. This is an almost impossible one to predict under a new boss with no track record in negotiations to use as a barometer. On one hand, you can envision the new GM wanting to create goodwill all around by striking a deal with the Pro Bowl running back. On the other hand, Emery might agree with Angelo’s logic that Forte and his agent have over-valued him. Still, Ted Phillips seemed to indicate that he hope a change at GM will help get a deal done to keep Forte in the fold for the long term.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I think Emery is a conciliatory guy and he will work, with no baggage, on getting Forte signed. Yes, the rest of the Bears' financial braintrust is still around, but I think the Emery Era gets off on right foot with this deal. I hope it gets done, because while I support a player’s right to get paid, I’m sick of Forte’s media tour about it.


Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Emery’s familiarity with many of the Bears' scouts is a good thing.


Jeff Dickerson: Fact. No question about it. Emery is a career scout who held the title of college scouting director for a pair of NFL teams (Atlanta and Kansas City) so he should know a good scout when he sees one. He should also know a bad scout when he sees one. But scouts are paid to give input, not make final decisions. That is the job of the general manager. So were the Bears scouts giving Angelo sound advice and he simply chose not to listen? Or were they pounding the table for Dan Bazuin, Michael Okwo, Juaquin Iglesias, Jarron Gilbert, Marcus Harrison and the other mistakes over the years? Tough to say. But we should have a better idea after the regime change.

[+] EnlargePhil Emery
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastWith another late-season fade in progress, Bears GM Phil Emery could find himself in rebuilding mode soon.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. Emery spoke highly of the team's scouting staff Monday, and for good reason: it's a good staff. Many don't realize how small a world the scouting community is. But Emery's familiarity with the Bears' staff not only stems from his time with the organization in the past, but also from his time spent out on the road working alongside them. Like pretty much everything else, there's a ton of gossip circulated throughout the scouting community, and word travels fast when a team's personnel department is incompetent. But that's not the buzz around the league regarding the Bears, which Emery well knows. Given this team's track record over the years throughout the draft and free agency, it's definitely fair to question some of the moves made. But even that should be scrutinized with a grain of salt. One thing I did hear during Senior Bowl week from several personnel staffers around the league was that the team's former general manager, Jerry Angelo -- partially because his extensive experience in personnel -- often didn't follow the recommendations of his scouting staff. That won't transpire with Emery as the GM partially because of his familiarity with Chicago's scouts, but also because of his philosophy of empowering the folks working underneath him and holding them accountable.

Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. Again, could go either way. Yes, Emery will be able to judge his staff’s abilities a bit quicker than someone who has never worked with them. On the other hand, this could have the Lovie effect, meaning that Emery may be hesitant to make changes even if they’re needed (though he did, by mutual agreement, presumably do that with Tim Ruskell). There’s also something to the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt and that too much of a history may undermine Emery’s authority.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. He’s been gone for awhile, so I think he can look at them with a clear eye. After this draft, he plans to change the system to be more like the “Patriots way” he learned in Atlanta and Kansas City. Basically, it’s a different way of grading and organizing players. Emery has shown that he won’t be beholden to the past, judging by the quick exit of his former boss, Tim Ruskell.


Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears’ top priority in free agency should be a No. 1 receiver.


Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The Bears can go a variety of different ways at No. 19 in the upcoming draft (provided they select an impact player) but in free agency, the team needs to spend money to land a top-flight wide receiver. There is a good chance, barring a surge in the use of the franchise tag, that numerous upper-echelon wideouts will hit the open market. Earl Bennett is a solid receiver. Johnny Knox, whose health status is a mystery, is a weapon when used properly. But after those two, the Bears need serious help at the position. Look at the NFL landscape. The good teams have multiple threats in the passing game. The Bears need to catch up, and it starts in free agency.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
John David Mercer/US PresswireHow much better could Jay Cutler be if he had a legitimate No. 1 receiver?

Michael C. Wright: Fact. I view this similarly to buying a Ferrari (Jay Cutler) and putting tires from a minivan (Chicago's receiving corps) on it. You just don't do it. For the Bears to see the type of return on their investment in Cutler they desire, they have to protect him -- which they've done -- and put dangerous weapons around him. Until then, Cutler's production on the field won't ever match up with his immense physical gifts. In 41 games with the Bears, Cutler has posted a franchise-best 82.1 passer rating, throwing for 9,259 yards and 63 touchdowns with 49 interceptions. Now go back to the receivers he's thrown to since 2009, and honestly tell me that Cutler's numbers wouldn't be much higher with at least one legitimate game-breaking target. The encouraging aspect of all of this is the fact recently-promoted offensive coordinator Mike Tice has been somewhat vocal about the team's need to add a dynamic threat to the group of receivers. Adding just one makes the current group even better because the Bears can move players around such as Earl Bennett and Devin Hester to take advantage of matchups with teams being forced to devote more coverage to the No. 1 receiver. As it stands now, opposing defenses can play man to man against Chicago's receivers and win most of the individual matchups. Emery and the coaching staff know that, and will act accordingly.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. ES. Get the best player available come draft time. In free agency, go for needs and need No. 1 for the Bears is a top-flight receiver, which also happens to be a position in which you’d rather have a veteran than a rookie. The window for your franchise quarterback is a fragile proposition and the best teams in the NFL have shown clearly that a superior passing game is a must. So yes, the Bears should and obviously will keep their eyes open for deals on offensive linemen, defensive lineman, safeties, corners and perhaps a tight end, if his name is Jermichael Finley. But for the love of all that is sacred, find a receiver this offseason.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. That should be the focus in the draft too, as Emery has to decide where he should allocate money for a Cutler target. Would it make more sense to spend a valuable pick on a receiver, dole out money for whoever’s on the market, or look for a receiver in a trade? Chicago should be a top landing spot for a free agent receiver, so this shouldn’t be as hard as Angelo made it in the past.

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