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All Grumbling Aside, The Chicago Bears Are Handling Matt Forte’s Contract Negotiation Perfectly

Matt Forte and Bears GM Jerry Angelo both understand and appreciate the fact that Forte's career production has far outstripped his pay grade, but the two parties have different feelings about the implications of that truth in light of the "franchise tag" option available to the Bears under the NFL collective bargaining agreement.

Over the first eight weeks of the 2011 NFL season, the rallying cry for Bears fans and select media members has been "pay the man!" Well, I guess it could be argued the real rally cry has been something more like "Mike Martz, please don't get Jay Cutler killed," but Matt Forte's contract situation has certainly been top of mind when it comes to non-gameday related Bears thoughts.

By now, every Bears fan knows the basic story. After being drafted 44th overall in the 2008 NFL draft, running back Matt Forte has done everything the Bears could have hoped for and more. Despite making only $555,000 in base salary, he is on pace to have the second-most yards from scrimmage in NFL history in a single season. He has been responsible for 46.3% of the Bears offense this season, racking up a league-leading 1,091 yard from scrimmage, and is the team’s leading rusher and receiver. Furthermore, as noted by Dan Noble at Windy City Gridiron (SB Nation’s Chicago Bears site), Forte is not merely a product of volume touches as he has consistently been an elite "big play" back as well.

Since entering the league Forte has undoubtedly become a complete, three-down running back in a league otherwise filled with largely unreliable part-time specialists at the position. He has done his job, and he has done it extremely well. However, before his production becomes overly romanticized it is important to take a step back and remember that this is his job. He's not playing solely for the love of the game or giving it his all out of the goodness of his heart. He is playing to prove his worth and earn a big contract. Sure he refused to holdout prior to the season for his new deal (which was probably his best chance for better leverage at the negotiating table), but the increased risks of injury, poor play, and deterioration of professional reputation in the event of a deal not being reached no doubt factored into his decision. There's nothing wrong with also acknowledging his dedication to his team, but we all need to remember that the business aspect of the game is not solely the province of the organization. Just ask Lance Briggs.

A confluence of the above circumstances has led to the present situation: Matt Forte has told the Bears he wants a new long-term deal that pays him among the top players at his position. He and Bears GM Jerry Angelo both understand and appreciate the fact that his career production has far outstripped his pay grade, but the two parties have different feelings about the implications of that truth in light of the "franchise tag" option available to the Bears under the NFL collective bargaining agreement.

Forte is demanding roughly $21 million guaranteed money, while the Bears have offered somewhere between $13-$15 million in guaranteed money (I focus on the guarantees because talking about the non-guaranteed money in the modern NFL is a complete waste of time). He has declined the offer made by the Bears believing he is worth more guaranteed money and has also recently referred to the one-year franchise tag option as "a cheap way to go out." Both sides are correct to a certain extent with their approach to the negotiation, it just so happens that the Bears are more correct. In reality, the Bears are handling the negotiation of a long-term deal with Forte perfectly under the circumstances.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand were Forte is coming from: he's done everything the Bears have asked him to do and then some. Whether it's rushing, blocking, receiving or third-down playmaking, Forte has answered the call more often than not. It's easy to see why he believes he is entitled to a new contract that is commensurate with his established performance level.

What's not easy to see is why Forte feels justified saying the franchise tag would be "cheap." In fact, it represents the level of pay that he ultimately wants to receive. There's absolutely nothing "cheap" about the franchise tag, which under the new CBA would guarantee him a contract equivalent to the average of the top five annual salaries at his position. If it was such a bad deal the players certainly could have negotiated givebacks to owners to eliminate the franchise tag or neuter it in the CBA negotiations. When everything was on the table during negotiation sessions, the people who represented the interests of the players (including Matt Forte) left the franchise tag completely untouched. If he and his cohorts didn’t like the franchise tag the time to speak up was during the summer, not now.

The subtext to Forte’s comments regarding the franchise tag is that he wants top-end pay and long-term security from an organization that doesn’t have to give him both. Because the franchise tag would allow the organization to sign Forte to a fully guaranteed one-year deal even if he rejects their long-term offers, the most salient issue at the negotiating table centers around assumption of injury risk.

The NFL is a brutal sport, and running back is a particularly brutal position. The burnout rate among running backs is especially high (running backs have an average career length of 2.57 years) and each additional carry or reception can rightly be considered another tick off the finite lifespan of nearly every NFL back. The more years a team tacks on to a deal for a player they could otherwise franchise on a one-year deal, the more risk they are taking on that the player will stay healthy and maintain their level of production.

This assumption of risk is why the offer from the Bears seems low. Right now the risk of injury is almost completely on Forte. His future earning potential without a new deal in place depends largely on his short-term health. If he blows out his knee on a play next week, he won’t get franchise tag money and any long-term deal will shrink the guaranteed money substantially. If Forte wins this initial bet on his own health without accepting the Bears’ offer, the team can still franchise him for a single year and leave most of the injury risk firmly on Forte’s end. If Forte wants to shift some of that risk to the Bears, he’s going to have to pay for it in the form of discounts on the long-term deal. At this point he wants to bet on the fact that he will stay healthy long enough to get through the franchise year and earn a big deal. It’s a dangerous proposition for an NFL running back.

This is why I say the Bears and Angelo are handling the current negotiations properly. They should get a discount for adding years to Forte’s deal, because the assumption of that risk is worth something in the bargain given the franchise tag alternative. The modern NFL is a two-back league because a single back doesn’t often stay healthy through a full season. A few recent deals notwithstanding, teams are also generally getting smarter about limiting the long-term guaranteed money committed to running backs. It is no coincidence that the franchise figure for running backs in 2011 is lower than every other position except tight ends, safeties and kickers and furthermore is expected to drop from $9.45 million this season to $7.71 million next season.  

Angelo’s draft history as GM has come under intense scrutiny in the past few years, but anyone who has stepped up to criticize his drafts should also be standing firmly behind him on how he has handled the Forte situation up to this point. Why? Because the whole idea behind wanting quality draft picks is that they offer the team surplus value in excess of their rookie contract. Forte is considered one of Angelo’s best draft picks precisely because he has generated more value than the cost of his second-round base salary. The best teams in the league aren’t the ones that pay every player exactly what they are worth just for the sake of doing it, they are the teams that horde low-cost players and superstars that provide surplus value. For Angelo to disregard his franchise tag leverage at the negotiation table and simply pay Forte full market value would be professionally irresponsible.

The last issue for me to tackle to drive home my point in style is the "but what if Forte gets offended and refuses to sign a long-term deal with the Bears" argument. The potential cause for concern undoubtedly stems from comments like this one made by Forte in early October:

"I don't want to be the guy that holds grudges but it always sticks in the back of your mind, things like that. It's the ugly side of the business. The NFL is a business, and that's the ugly side of it. I just want to be somewhere I'm valued as a player."    

The first thing to remember is that the Bears have the right to franchise Forte in both 2011-12 and 2012-13 before the young running back has any opportunity to leave. The second thing to remember is that he can still accept long-term offers that work in the proper discounts at any point from now until the point in time where he can leave for another team. The third thing to remember is that the Bears still have every opportunity to make the best offer to Forte when he truly becomes a free agent. If this isn’t enough to assuage your fears of a possible departure, then consider this: even if Forte does eventually leave it will only come back to bite the Bears if all of the following conditions are met…

  1. The Bears offer more money than another team and Forte still leaves (the causality requirement)
  2. He maintains a performance level commensurate to the top-5 running backs in the league
  3. He stays completely healthy every season through his late 20s and early 30s
  4. The Bears fail to draft or sign any cheaper replacement(s) that mimic Forte’s production

Considering all of the above, it is very unlikely that this process would ever come back to bite the Bears. If Matt Forte wants to bet on his own long-term health for the sake of a few million dollars in guarantees that’s on him, not the Bears. Forte is going to get paid one way or another, and it all comes down to how much risk he is willing to hold on to. Angelo is properly utilizing his leverage in negotiation to either get surplus value or to minimize the franchise’s exposure to the risk of injury.

That’s why the Bears are handling the negotiation of Matt Forte’s contract perfectly.