When the Chicago Bears signed free agent running back Michael Bush to a four-year contract on Thursday, seemingly everyone was happy. Everyone, that is, expect for incumbent running back Matt Forte, who is still waiting for a new deal.
Because this is 2012 and every man, woman, and child must be armed with a handheld computer in their pocket for fear of becoming irrelevant, it didn't take long to hear what Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte thought of his team signing Michael Bush to a four-year contract on Thursday afternoon. Bush was widely considered to be the top free agent running back available and Chicago gave him $14 million, $7 million of which is guaranteed.
The Bears were lauded for the move, seen as another feather in the cap of new general manager Phil Emery, who is only reinforcing all of the terrible things Bears fans felt about the man he replaced, Jerry Angelo, with a series of shrewd offseason moves over the last two weeks. The only person who didn't seem appeased was Forte, who tweeted:
There's only so many times a man that has done everything he's been asked to do can be disrespected! Guess the GOOD GUYS do finish last....— Matt Forte (@MattForte22) March 22, 2012
As you may have heard, Matt Forte is looking for a new contract. If you know only one fact about the Chicago Bears, this might be it.
The Bears and Forte were in a contract dispute even before the running back shot out of the gates in 2011 like a racing dog transfixed on the lead rabbit -- in this case, a contract extension. The Bears offered Forte approximately $14 million guaranteed, which the Tulane product saw as unfit, particularly after the Carolina Panthers inked a less productive running back, DeAngelo Williams, to $21 million worth of guaranteed money weeks earlier.
Throughout the first 11 weeks of the season, it certainly seemed like Forte laid out a relatively convincing case for why he perceived the Bears' offer as a low-ball . Forte was practically Chicago's entire offense: he jostled back and forth with the Eagles' LeSean McCoy for the league lead in yards from scrimmage, acting as the key cog to both the Bears' running and passing attack, each weighed down by a woefully below average offensive line. When quarterback Jay Cutler would feel the heat after the fourth, fifth, sixth step of his Mike Martz-designed drop, there was Forte, ready to take the check-down as far up the field as possible.
Just a week after the Bears lost Cutler for the season with a thumb injury, they would lose Forte to an MCL sprain against the Kansas City Chiefs. Truth be told, it hardly mattered: with backup QB Caleb Hanie in charge, the Bears didn't stand a chance whether they had their Pro Bowl running back or not. And just like that, a season that began 7-3 went down the drain, and with it, so did Forte's live-action counter-offer. If the final numbers were to be the exclamation point on Forte's rebuttal, he was robbed of the punctuation. He would end his career year with 997 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns, even if it only tells a fraction of the story.
Anyone who watched the Bears last season knew Matt Forte was the team's best player. Unfortunately for Forte, that doesn't earn someone a new contract.
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Forte is hardly the first NFL player who is unhappy to receive the franchise tag, which the Bears officially stuck on their star runner earlier this offseason. The franchise tag was created, essentially, so that LeBron James could not leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to go to the Miami Heat. That was the situation the NFL was planning to prevent when the tag was implemented -- to give the team that drafted the star player a chance to retain him. And though the franchise tag will certainly give Forte a handsome raise -- he earned $600,000 in 2011, and will earn over $7 million in 2012 -- it's self-evident just how short professional football careers last, particularly for running backs. When your career, even your long-term health, is on the line with every snap, there's no guarantee you'll get a chance to sign another contract. These are high stakes for everyone involved.
What the franchise tag prevents is something everyone else in this country has access to: a free market. If an accountant makes $50,000 a year at Job A, and can make $65,000 a year a Job B, he is free to switch companies. Not the same with Forte. The NFL is actually more powerful than capitalism. While the rest of America can theoretically earn what it's worth, Forte doesn't get the privilege. Granted, it's hard to find sympathy for a man upset at making over $7 million next year. But the point remains: without the franchise tag, Forte would be free to go to the highest bidder. Instead, the Bears will keep him at a low risk, high cost contract.
The sad truth is, for as likable as Forte generally comes off, the Bears are doing the right thing, at least from a business perspective. The career of an NFL running back is notoriously short, and it only takes a quick glance around the league to see what can happen when runners get their money. Adrian Peterson got paid, but the injury that ended his 2011 season could put his career in jeopardy. Kansas City's Jamaal Charles, Tennessee's Chris Johnson...the list goes on. If there's a handbook that comes with the position when you're hired as an NFL general manager, rule No. 1 may as well state never to pay a running back until the last possible second. The franchise tag, which can be used on the same player two years in a row, is practically custom engineered for running backs. If Forte has another quality season, the Bears can just franchise him again. That will amount to over $15 million for Forte, though it's fair to note a) given the violent nature of the NFL, it's hardly set in stone he'll have the opportunity to be franchised again, and b) that number is still around $5 million short of what Forte is asking for.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Forte's push for a new contract isn't the numbers, but the perception. Chicago is a city notoriously hard on highly paid, under-performing athletes, but Forte actually had the public on his side last season. One couldn't go on Twitter without seeing the #PayForte hashtag. Alfonso Soriano is presumably very confused.
Will the public still support Forte after his latest Twitter stink? It remains to be seen, but fans will always root for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back of it. Forte feels disrespected, and most would say rightfully so. Still, business is business, and the Bears certainly aren't out of line by exercising their right to use the franchise tag. Forte won't want to hear it, but it's likely he'll be in the same situation next season.