Commentary

Bears' Forte has plenty at stake

Is a hasty return worth risking further injury amid contract uncertainty?

Updated: December 6, 2011, 11:58 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Don't cry for Matt Forte.

Hours after getting his own plasma injected into his balky right knee, the Chicago Bears running back and his sprained medial collateral ligament were standing tall at the Victoria's Secret PINK store at Water Tower Place, next to impossibly skinny Swedish fashion model Elsa Hosk. Could be worse.

"Yeah it's not a bad Tuesday night," he said, smiling. "Come to Victoria's Secret, take some pictures. Not too bad."

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Victoria SecretMatt Forte isn't showing it, but the Bears' star has played this season with added pressure due to contract uncertainty.

Before you get all worked up and compare him to Jay Cutler taking the stairs after suffering a similar, but much more important injury, in the NFC title game last year, calm down.

Don't get it twisted. Forte might be looking for that guaranteed paper, but he still wants to return this season after getting knocked out Sunday in the Bears' 10-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Also, Water Tower has escalators.

"It helps to get out and get around," Forte said. "Especially if you do have an injury, you can't just sit at home and be cooped up in the basement all day. You got to get your rehab, but it's good to walk around too."

Forte took a platelet-rich plasma injection Tuesday morning, which is supposed to speed up the healing process. All the cool athletes are doing it. He's trying to borrow Tommie Harris' old hyperbaric chamber to further speed up the recovery. Sources say he might try to invade the Wednesday media conference call with Tim Tebow to see if he can offer a blessing.

It's pretty obvious Forte, the man chasing 1,000 yards and millions of dollars, is the veritable gamer. In 2009, he played most of the season with a lesser MCL sprain without making any excuses. He's honest too. Forte admitted being three rushing yards shy of 1,000 "kind of sucks."

"I want to hurry up and get back and hopefully I'm 100 percent when I get back," he said.

With four games left and the Bears on the brink of playoffs or disaster with Caleb Hanie starting for Cutler, Forte's absence could be the death knell of a once-promising season. For now, all Forte can do is rehab and hope.

At the promotional event, well-meaning PR flacks tried to get reporters to pepper in a few event-themed questions. We were more concerned with Forte's Secret.

"I don't want to give a timetable because I really don't know exactly how long it's going to take, because it varies," Forte said. "I'm just going to do everything I can. I got the PRP shot. That makes it heal up faster."

Forte has blossomed into a Marshall Faulk-type back in Mike Martz's system. He carried the Bears for much of the season, and was leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) going into Sunday's debacle.

But with his performance peaking, Forte's contract has been one of the biggest storylines this season. Given the Bears' reputation (deserved or not) for tough negotiating (some would say penny-pinching) with certain players (running backs, not quarterbacks), Forte became a cause célèbre around the league. Pay Forte, everyone screamed (or tweeted).

Of course, that's all relative. According to sources, the four-year veteran had turned down an extension worth between $13 million and $14 million.

The Bears and Forte's representation mutually suspended contract negotiations. The Bears can place its franchise tag on Forte for next season, but he has been vocal about the team's perceived unwillingness to reward his stellar play. In fact, for a while, it seemed like he was willing to talk to anyone about it. I swear his contract was a story arc on "Boardwalk Empire" last month. Some found it unseemly. He has quieted down in recent weeks.

I'm a player's columnist and I've admired Forte for sticking to his guns and setting a higher value for his worth. And I love it when players challenge management. Forte's play has proved him correct. He's outplayed guys with bigger deals, and he's done it with flair, ripping off big gains on rushes and screen passes. He was better than Cutler. In a perfect world, the Bears would've locked him in months ago. But this is a league with franchise tags and short shelf lives for running backs.

This injury showed the risk associated with his strategy. I asked him if he was thinking about the deal when he was on the ground.

"I was hoping I didn't have to have surgery," he said. "[The contract] wasn't the first thought in my mind."

Was it second?

"Maybe the second," he said.

Soldier Field was silent as medical personnel attended to him. With Cutler already out with a busted thumb and Hanie almost comically ineffectual, Forte's injury was magnified. Given his contract situation, the hit was illuminating.

Now that he can exhale, as he put it, Forte revisited the helmet-to-knee hit from Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson. It shows how unpredictable each hit can be.

"Yeah, I saw the guy coming," he said. "I didn't expect him to slip the block like that. He kind of put his helmet right on the knee. What scared me was my foot was planted in the ground, and whenever that happens, bad things happen. I'm just glad my foot came out of the grass and didn't tear anything -- the bad things to tear. The MCL doesn't require surgery, so that's good thing."

Forte was limited two years ago when he played on a bum knee. Even if he comes back for the last two games this season, or even just the finale in Minnesota, there's no guarantee he'll be able to hit the perimeter and explode for big chunks of yardage. Maybe he'll be unconsciously limited. Maybe he'll just be a split-second slow.

You almost wonder if it's worth it all for him to return. After all, the 2-3 punch of Marion Barber and Kahlil Bell weren't the reason the Bears lost Sunday.

And with no ligament damage, Forte will still make his money, one way or another. He doesn't need 1,000 yards.

But if Forte can come back and lead the Bears to the playoffs, his legacy in Chicago will be cemented forever.

So yeah, I guess it would be worth it, and not just for sentimental reasons. Just ask the 1985 Bears, one's legacy pays very well.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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