- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- As the last days of June melt into July and football talk in Chicago occupies a legitimate spot on the sports landscape rather than just acting as a time-killer to avoid Cubs talk, the Matt Forte issue will become much more of a Bears issue.
Whereas past debate hinged on whether Forte was worthy of a contract longer and more substantial than the one-year, $7.7 million the team's franchise tag will afford him, it will soon become bigger than Forte.
The Bears love this because they will contend that the team is always bigger than one player and his individual contract demands. But what might bite them in the backside if they're not careful is how their dealings with one of their most valuable and popular players could affect the delicate balance of the entire team in a season many predict could be special.
To a man, athletes will almost always back each other when it comes to contract issues. But with a little distance, former athletes can be more objective, a little more candid when no longer worried about peer pressure and team loyalty.
That said, some former NFL stars who gathered in Chicago on Friday afternoon for a flag football game to promote "Madden NFL 13" were just as outspoken and, in some cases, surprisingly angry over the Bears' treatment of Forte.
Hall of Famer Michael Irvin said the Bears are treading in dangerous territory right now.
"People can say, well, [the Bears] have time, they can [sign him] before the season," Irvin said. "But, no, you don't. In OTAs is when you put things together. Now is when guys start saying, 'Wow, we look good, we have a chance to be part of something special.' And then they go back and put in special work leading up to training camp.
"If you wait until training camp, you've missed all this opportunity to prepare for the season. You've already missed the message that we're here for one reason. Now all the other guys on the team are saying, 'Why should I work hard if you're going to treat him like that? They're never going to pay me either.' It sends a horrible message, a horrible message."
The "Wow, we look good" that Irvin described is actually exactly the aura the Bears were putting out during OTAs and minicamp over the past month. Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall were finding their groove; Devin Hester looked ecstatic, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs rejuvenated and the coaching staff invigorated, as well, with a new offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and various other additions and changes.
Cutler alone was so cheerful, it was contagious. And a happy Cutler is sure to go a long way toward team harmony.
But it was also three months before the season opener. And based on his June 13 comments on "The Waddle & Silvy Show," it came from a place of summer optimism rather than hard-bitten realism.
"I would be shocked if [Forte] doesn't sign his tender by July 15, or whenever it is, and he shows up," Cutler said. "It would really be a surprise to me [if Forte misses any training camp]."
If Cutler's words were any reflection of the way his teammates look at Forte's situation, then they are not prepared for any kind of a holdout, prolonged or otherwise. And Irvin is right. That's precisely the sort of wrinkle that can disrupt an otherwise positive and productive training camp.
ESPN analyst and former eight-time Pro Bowl receiver Cris Carter was downright irritated with the Bears for, as he sees it, misusing the franchise tag to double-cross their own player.
"What has he done since they drafted him that they asked him to do [and] he couldn't do?" Carter said. "The reason why you're supposed to franchise someone, the reason why they made the rule, is so you can tag your key players and [eventually] sign them to long-term contracts. But the Bears are like some other teams and that's not the way they use it. They use it to kind of trap you and utilize the rules against you.
"Instead of trying to sign you to a long term, they're trying to sign you to one or two deals. Sign you to a one-year tender this year, then re-up next year for [another] franchise [tag] so they have you for two years. They don't have to make a long-term commitment. So I understand Forte. I wouldn't come. I wouldn't play, I wouldn't go out there until they gave me my contract."
Forte said Friday that he was "optimistic" because at least he and his agent are still in talks with the Bears. But he also allowed there's a chance he'll hold out of training camp and a "slight chance" he could end up not playing at all this season.
The Bears will tell you, and so will many NFL experts, that they might not need him, that solid NFL running backs are plentiful and that Michael Bush will be more than adequate with their revamped and improved passing game. And they might be right.
But Forte's friends and teammates aren't likely to forget him. And they're not likely to forget how management treated him. The '85 Bears managed to focus just fine despite the holdouts of Todd Bell and Al Harris. But not every team is the '85 Bears.
"When a guy gets an opportunity now to get his money, it's more important now than ever in the NFL to get his money," Carter said. "The next year, the Bears will be done with him, let him go. [But] he's put his work in, he's done exactly what you want a young player to do, you're supposed to pay him. You get drafted, you perform like a Pro Bowler, then they pay you. But there's certain teams in this league, that's not what they're trying to do."
Irvin and Carter warn the Bears about the danger of not signing Forte.