The Case Against Paying Matt Forte

Let me preface this by saying that I have nothing against Matt Forte. I obviously do not know him, and for all intensive purposes, what I am about to say has nothing to do with him. If you replaced Matt Forte’s name in the following post with Marion Barber, Raymont Harris or Bill Simmons, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Now that we have that out of the way, let me just say that I am not of the opinion that Matt Forte should get a big contract extension. Not because he doesn’t “deserve it” but because that is not what’s best for the Chicago Bears, and that is all I care about.

First and foremost, the idea of a franchise running back is dying. As the rules continue to slant in favor of passing attacks it seems like more and more teams are getting by with a random running back, sometimes off the scrap heap. Take some of the better teams of the last decades and look at the number of playoff appearances and the number of different leading rushers for the regular season in those playoff years:

  • New England: 8 playoff appearances/4 different leading rushers
  • Pittsburgh: 7/4
  • Indianapolis: 9/3
  • Philadelphia: 8/3
  • Baltimore: 6/4
  • Green Bay: 7/3
  • San Diego: 5/1
  • Seattle: 6/2

So of all the teams that made the playoffs at least 5 times in the last 10 seasons, they combined for 56 playoff appearances and 24 different leading rushers. That’s one leading rusher for every 2.3 playoff appearances. Clearly having a consistent guy in the backfield isn’t a huge deal.

What if we go back through the last few Super Bowl Champs:

  • 2010, Green Bay, Brandon Jackson: 16 starts in 4+ seasons. 1329 career rushing yards.
  • 2009, New Orleans, Pierre Thomas: 793 yards in 2009; 19 starts in 4+seasons; never cracked 1000 yard season
  • 2008, Pittsburgh, Willie Parker: Out of football after 6 seasons; three 1000 yard seasons, but none since 2007
  • 2007, New York Giants, Brandon Jacobs: Two 1000 yard seasons including 2007; 44 starts in 7 seasons
  • 2006, Indianapolis: Joseph Addai: Two 1000 yard seasons, ’06 and ’07; 4 straight under 1000 since
  • 2005, Pittsburgh: Willie Parker: see above
  • 2004, New England, Corey Dillon: 11,000+ career yards; 8 1000 yard seasons out of 10

So if you are keeping score you have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a team that won the Super Bowl with what could be considered a franchise running back, and that was 30-year old Corey Dillon, signed as a free agent that offseason and 2 years from retirement. Seeing as Parker lasted just 6 seasons it’s hard to consider him a franchise back.

Then there are the financial implications. Giving Forte a big deal will limit the Bears’ flexibility going forward. This is a team with a guy who had potential to be a franchise quarterback, and who, so far this season, has looked like one. A 28-year old who has just two seasons left on his contract, and if it’s for real will be looking for a big salary boost in 2014. Meanwhile, the Bears remain without a “go to” WR, with Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett looking like the closest to fitting that mold, but injuries and inconsistency making it seem unlikely either gets over the hump.

Then there is the aging defense that can only rely on both Brian Urlacher keeping his quick first step for so long, and Lance Briggs’ keeping his contract complaints to himself. Thus far Major Wright appears the only “young” player on defense with any long-term upside and the four best defenders are on the wrong side of 30. Unless the Bears turn their draft fortunes around, rebuilding this team will require money. The jury is still out on surprise starting LT J’Marcus Webb, but first round tackles Chris Williams (2008) and Gabe Carimi (2011) have already battled injuries their entire careers, meaning that at the moment there are three offensive line positions in question.

The current rules of the NFL collective bargaining agreement (CBA)1 contain a rookie salary scale that help set Forte’s existing contract. Forte’s rookie contract ends at the of this season, but that doesn’t mean he is guaranteed a new long-term contract. NFL CBA rules allow players to have the “franchise tag” placed on them. This tag applies for one season and guarantees a player a salary based on the average of the top 5 players at his position. The pro to this for the player is that they are guaranteed all of that money, whereas normal contracts have limited guaranteed money. The con is that they have no security beyond the first season.

This tag can only be applied to one player per team, per season and can only be applied to the same player by the same team two times in a row. What this ultimately means though, is that the Bears can opt to not sign Forte to a new contract and still keep him for the next two seasons. Even though they would quite possibly pay him a higher base salary over those two years, they will still save on guaranteed money in the long run.

This is surely the way to go. While it would cause unrest with Forte (more on that in a bit) it is the best decision for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, it has a built-in security policy against injury or skill degradation. Second it helps support the aforementioned financial flexibility.

I understand that Forte wouldn’t be happy with this decision, but that is somewhat irrelevant. The CBA includes the ability for teams to use the franchise tag in this manner, and it’s pretty rare that a player is happy it’s used on him. They could have fought harder to have it removed but I assume since it only affects at most 30 players per year it wasn’t a high priority. He is well aware of the fact that NFL careers are often short and could basically end at any time, and that he needs to establish some long term financial stability as soon as possible, but that is not likely what is best for the Bears.

As horrible as it sounds, having a player who is essentially in a “contract year” for three seasons will make them extra motivated so that they can ensure that big payday eventually comes. If Forte were to suffer a catastrophic injury I would feel bad for him, but as a Bears fan I would be happier that we weren’t locked in to paying him forever.

Forte has had an amazing career so far. I was stunned to find out that he is currently 24th in rushing yards amongst active players, ahead of Ray Rice and Rashard Mendenhall, both who were rookies with Forte, but are both actually 2 years younger. At the moment Forte has looked like a top 5 running back, but until the Bears have to pay him, I don’t think they should. It’s not in the best interest of the team, and as a fan, that’s all that matters to me.

  1. Which were just revisited as part of this summer’s lockout []