- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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If the sides don't put together a contract extension soon, the next development in the Matt Forte contract saga could take place next Monday when the league allows teams to apply the franchise tag to players.
Teams can apply the tag from Feb. 20 through Mar. 5 at 4 p.m. ET as a method of preventing a player from exploring the open market. Team president Ted Phillips and general manager Phil Emery haven't said the team's intention is to apply the tag, but the former made it clear the team won't let Forte test free agency, which begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 13.
"We'd like to (sign Forte to a new deal)," Phillips told "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "But as Phil (Emery) pointed out we obviously will at least consider placing the franchise tag on him. We don't have any intention of letting Matt hit the open market. We'll sit down with him privately -- Phil will -- and discuss what the plans are prior to the Feb. 20 franchise tag date."
During his introductory press conference on Jan. 30, Emery called the franchise tag "a tool that has been collectively bargained." Based on the expected franchise tag values for 2012, the "tool" the GM discussed will be much more team friendly this year than in previous ones.
The franchise tag value for 2012 is calculated as a percentage of the overall salary cap figure for the previous five years, as opposed to the past when the tender was determined by taking the average of the NFL's top five salaries at each position.
The franchise tag value for a running back in 2011 was $9.6 million, but it is expected to fall to $7.7 million in 2012. Part of Forte's rationale for not signing the contract the team offered prior to last season was the fact it was worth less than the franchise tag yearly and would have locked him into a multiyear pact that paid less than that number on a per-year basis.
Forte declined the club's only contract offer, which was worth $13 to $14 million guaranteed, and hinted in January that a holdout could be possible if the team used the franchise tag, but he has since softened that stance.
"It depends on the motive," Forte said. "If they're doing the franchise tag just to get more time in order to negotiate a long-term deal, then I would be OK with it. But if it's just to hold me another year and just 'Let's throw some money at him right now to keep him quiet,' that's not going to solve anything."
If the Bears tag Forte during the two-week window, the sides would have until July 16 to work out a multiyear extension. If the sides still can't come to agreement, Forte would play 2012 under the franchise tag, which is expected to pay $481,250 per week (over 16 weeks).
In the unlikely event the Bears opted to use the tag on the running back again in 2013, the club would be required to pay 120 percent of the previous year's franchise tag value. But such a scenario would make for a sizable dent in the team's salary cap figures because unlike a long-term deal, those numbers can't be spread over multiple years.
Perhaps that's why Emery characterized the franchise tag as a tool "that is fair to the player, and fair to the club."
In earning his first Pro Bowl nod in 2011, Forte gained 1,487 yards from scrimmage and led the league in that category before a sprained right medial collateral ligament sustained on Dec. 4 knocked him out of the final four games. Forte's value likely increased with the promotion of Mike Tice to the post of offensive coordinator because the coach -- like head coach Lovie Smith -- prefers to build around a strong ground game that opens up the pass.
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.