Bears place tag on Matt Forte

The Chicago Bears announced on Friday that they applied the franchise designation to running back Matt Forte as the sides continue to work on a long-term contract.

Teams could apply the tag from Feb. 20 through Mar. 5 at 4 p.m. ET as a method of preventing players from exploring the open market. The designation means Forte will play the 2012 season for a base salary of $7.7 million. But it's believed the team applied the tag to buy it more time to come to an accord with Forte on a long-term agreement.

The sides can continue to negotiate until the July 16 deadline for teams to franchise players to multiyear extensions.

"Matt is an important part of our football team and we chose to utilize the franchise tag to ensure he remains a Bear," general manager Phil Emery said. "We believe in Matt as a player and a person. Our intention is to continue to work to find common ground and keep Matt as a member of the Chicago Bears in 2012 and beyond."

Team president Ted Phillips made it clear the team won't let Forte test free agency, which begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 13. Forte said he was amenable to the franchise designation if "they're doing (it) to just get more time in order to negotiate a long-term deal. But if it's just to hold me another year, that's not going to solve anything."

"We'd like to (sign Forte to a new deal)," Phillips told "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000 last month. "We don't have any intention of letting Matt hit the open market. We'll sit down with him privately -- Phil (Emery) will -- and discuss what the plans are prior to the Feb. 20 franchise tag date."

The sides met during the NFL combine in Indianapolis to continue working on a potential deal that originally fell apart prior to the 2011 season opener.

Emery called the franchise tag "a tool that has been collectively bargained" during his Jan. 30 introductory press conference.

The franchise tag value for 2012 is calculated as a percentage of the overall salary cap figure for the previous five years, which is different than years past when the tender was determined by taking the average of the NFL's top five salaries at each position.

For instance, the franchise tag value for a running back in 2011 was $9.6 million, but has fallen to $7.7 million in 2012. If the sides don't come to an agreement on a multiyear extension by the July 16 deadline, Forte would receive $481,250 per week (over 16 weeks) under the franchise designation.

In the unlikely event the Bears opted to use the tag on Forte again in 2013, the club would be required to pay 120 percent of the previous year's franchise tag value.

A four-year veteran, Forte earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 2011, gaining 1,487 yards from scrimmage, which 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.

Given the team's run-first philosophy under new offensive coordinator Mike Tice and coach Lovie Smith, Forte remains the club's most important priority this offseason. Smith often refers to the Bears as a team that "gets off the bus running (the football)" and Tice has been vocal about the need to establish the rushing attack first, which loosens up defenses, while putting the offense in a position to exploit individual matchups.

"In time, hopefully we can get an agreement in place that suits Matt and we feel comfortable with," Smith said from the NFL combine. "I think it's just a matter of time."

The club just bought itself more than four months to sign Forte to a multiyear extension.

Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.