Matt Forte: Bears Have All the Leverage in Ugly Contract Dispute

Wes ODonnellFeatured ColumnistMay 28, 2012

CHARLOTTE, NC - OCTOBER 10: Running back Matt Forte #22 of the Chicago Bears runs with the ball against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on October 10, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images)
Geoff Burke/Getty Images

Matt Forte has seen LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster and DeAngelo Williams all cash in on major contract extensions in the past two years. By all accounts, he belongs in any conversation with those three stars as one of the best all-purpose backs in the league.

The Chicago Bears, however, aren't ready to pay him like one.

Since entering the league four years ago, he's missed only four career games. The 26-year-old is averaging 253 carries and 55 catches per season, putting him just over 300 touches per year. There are only a handful of backs in today's league that boast those kinds of numbers.

But the four career games he missed a year ago, as well as the several he missed in college, have caused the Chicago Bears to question his longevity. David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune writes: "According to the source, given Forte's past the Bears cannot rule out arthritis setting in and becoming a chronic problem for the fifth-year running back with 1,237 career NFL touches who turns 27 in December."

The injury concerns may seem overblown, considering he's played in 60 of 64 career games, but his contract year has unfortunately fallen in a year where the Bears hold all the cards and can effectively use injury concerns to get their way.

McCoy's recent deal with the Eagles—a $45 million deal with $20.8 million in guarantees—has likely driven up Forte's value in his mind. However, McCoy is more than two years Forte's junior and has considerably less wear and tear as an NFL back.

While Forte is as productive as McCoy, that two-plus-year age differential makes all the difference in the world. As Haugh writes, "In the NFL, data show running backs start declining after age 28." That doesn't favor Forte well at all.

And even if the organization's health concern is a bargaining tactic, it's a bargaining tactic that'll stick with for the duration of this dispute.

The Bears signed another all-purpose running back, Michael Bush, to a four-year deal this offseason. The former Raider suffered a terrible knee injury in college, but he has since returned to form and showed this year that he can carry a legitimate workload. The Bears' need for Forte diminishes now that they have two guys who can make plays both in between the tackles and out of the backfield.

Two recent deals, one directly impacting Forte's spot with the Bears and one setting the market, takes two big chunks out of his value.

On top of that, the Bears finally landed themselves a legitimate No. 1 receiver this offseason in Brandon Marshall. As Haugh wisely points out, the last time Jay Cutler and Marshall played together in Denver, the Broncos' leading rusher had only 343 yards, and the offense was still a force. Running back by committee, with an emphasis on the passing game, further diminishes Forte's value.

The Bears are losers in this situation if they go into the season without their best offensive player in camp, but they hold all the cards to eventually get their way.

Eventually, Forte's going to have to make good on his threat to sit out, or he's going to have to come down from his lofty demands. The Bears have already taken necessary measures to help compensate for his potential absence, but the running back is unlikely to know of many measures that will compensate for the millions of dollars he'll leave on the table.