Have at It: Matt Forte's unfortunate spot

November, 5, 2011
11/05/11
8:00
AM ET
I was quite frankly surprised at how many of you support the Chicago Bears' stance with tailback Matt Forte, and as a result are unconcerned about the potential connection between team morale and competitiveness. That issue was the crux of our Have at It debate this week, which asked you to consider whether the continued public complaints from Forte and his teammates will scuttle the Bears' playoff run.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Kyle Terada/US PresswireSigns point to the Bears using their franchise tag on running back Matt Forte next season.
The public discussion continued even after our Wednesday morning post. Linebacker Brian Urlacher termed it "so disappointing" that the Bears haven't agreed to terms on a contract extension for Forte, who is having an MVP-type season. Forte told ESPN's Josina Anderson that it was "odd" the Bears didn't seem interested in rewarding him, and even NBA star LeBron James tweeted that the Bears should "pay the man, please."

I don't necessarily think your position is wrong. My experience is that most fans want to see well-liked incumbents remain happily with their team. But in the end, I suppose you're not worried about Forte leaving because of the franchise tag, and you're not willing to accept any drop in competitiveness created by off-field issues.

Forte has turned down an offer that included between $13 million and $14 million in guarantees -- less than half what the Tennessee Titans gave Chris Johnson and the Minnesota Vikings gave Adrian Peterson. If he plays under the franchise tag next season, Forte will have a one-year contract worth the average salary of the NFL's five highest-paid running backs, projected to be about $7.7 million.

Wrote severs28: "How is an average salary of the top 5 players at your position a second-rate contract?"

It isn't for 2012, of course. But it is over the long term, considering Forte would need to continue his current level to earn a franchise tag for 2013 and match the guaranteed money he has since turned down. Running back production often peters out as a player enters his late 20's, and bpalton007 wrote:

"The Bears are making the smart business call. I would never pay huge bucks for a running back in a league where 2,000 yards from Chris Johnson doesn't even get you into the playoffs, and excellence year in and year out from AP has translated to [nothing] for the Vikes (except in 2009, with Brett Favre)."

In a running back's worse nightmare, his team takes advantage of the franchise system to avoid ever committing money beyond the current season. It leaves the player at a higher level of risk and elevates the feeling of a one-sided relationship.

As harsh as it might be, many of you can see where the Bears are coming from. As Jwoude23 noted: "The Bears are planning on riding Forte for this year and next (under the franchise tag) and then letting some other team overpay for his nonproductive years after that. As much as it pains me to say it, it's the smart football move, as running backs break down very quickly and are always one injury away from losing their agility, and therefore their edge."

Jwoude23 acknowledged that while it makes sense from a football perspective, "it probably does negatively impact the players to see the lack of loyalty shown to a consistent performer who is also a class act."

So does that mean anything? You were split at best on that. Biggest Cheese wondered if "a distrust of upper management" could make future players harder to sign. But would it impact how the team plays for the rest of the 2011 season? At best, wrote youspellgodMARK, it could galvanize players moving forward:

"To me, it seems that it has united the players against a common enemy: Management. Many contracts are incentivized, so the best way to strike back at management is to make them pay out as many bonuses as possible. Since (to this point) no players have grumbled against the coaches or each other, I think this only helps to galvanize the team."

My take? I really do think it's rare to see this level of on-the-record public discussion about a contract issue during the season. That many of the Bears' team leaders have spoken out, as well as players on other teams and even in other sports, suggests it's being viewed as more than your basic contract stalemate.

Forte is in a rare spot: He has elevated his play to the point where he's out-priced himself for what appears to be the Bears' business model at his position. The first half of his season, at least, is on par with or better than what the very best running backs in the game have done. He turned down what would have been a below-market deal on those terms, but now he faces the real possibility of being guaranteed less to play in 2012 and then finding himself in the same situation after that season.

With that said, if the Bears don't make the playoffs in 2011, it won't be because of the way they handled Forte's contract situation. It will be because they couldn't protect quarterback Jay Cutler, or their defense got too old or Devin Hester didn't get any big returns. Players in Chicago might not be happy, but that state of mind doesn't necessarily correspond with competitiveness.

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