There are actions and there are words. At this point the Chicago Bears are all about words when it comes to Matt Forte, their all-purpose Pro Bowl running back.
After outperforming a four-year rookie contract that paid him an average of just over $900,000 a season, Forte is seeking significant raises in a long-term deal. How significant has yet to be disclosed, but the former second-round pick is more than deserving considering he ranks seventh in rushing yards (4,233) over the past four seasons, third in receiving yards (1,985) and fifth in yards from scrimmage (6,218) by a running back.
At the Scouting Combine last month in Indianapolis, coach Lovie Smith was asked whether running backs are being devalued in a league that's increasingly shifting toward the passing game (four of the top six marks for single-season passing yards were set in 2011). He looked the reporter in the eyes, smiled slightly and said: "Not in Chicago. The running back position will always have value for you. With the elements and all the things we want to get done, just our basic philosophy, there will always be a premium placed on the running back."
Clearly new general manager Phil Emery and Forte's representative have different definitions of what "premium" means. On the high end, premium could mean the potential $100 million deal that Vikings running back Adrian Peterson signed last year; it calls for him to earn $40 million in the first three seasons and includes $36 million in guarantees. On the low end it could mean the four-year potential $31 million pact ($18 million guaranteed) that Seahawks back Marshawn Lynch signed earlier this month.
Emery could not be reached for comment, and Adisa Bakari, Forte's agent, declined to discuss particulars. Hence there is no way of knowing the width of the gap separating the sides. Still, negotiations should not be this complicated.
The Bears already have used the "franchise" tag on Forte, meaning he will earn $7.7 million on a one-year deal if the sides can't come to terms on a multiyear pact. If Chicago chooses to franchise him again next season, his one-year salary would increase to $9.2 million, which would give him just under $17 million for two years. That should be the starting point for guaranteed money in a long-term deal.
The Chicago Tribune reported that last year Forte sought a contract that would guarantee him $20 million and average $8 million a year. If true, there's no plausible explanation for why the deal hasn't gotten done, considering he would get nearly that much in guarantees as a franchise player this year and next. As it is, the Bears have spent roughly $17.5 million over the past four seasons on Forte's backups, starting with Kevin Jones, then Chester Taylor and Marion Barber, and now Michael Bush, who on Thursday signed a four-year deal that includes $7 million in guarantees.
Forte, normally soften spoken and non-controversial, spoke out on Twitter after learning of the signing. He wrote: "There's only so many times a man that has done everything he's been asked to do can be disrespected! Guess GOOD GUYS do finish last."
He added: "For the record, I'm not mad at the signing of another running back. But ... not taking care of [your] own and undervaluing a player under his market value is another story! Just keeping it real ... hate it or love it."
Here's the reality: The Bears have the leverage and know it. There's virtually no chance Forte will sit out the season and pass up a one-year salary that's almost double what he made in his first four seasons combined. Still, they have to be careful about developing a reputation for not taking care of their own players, especially when those players are leaders who've outperformed their contracts.
Homegrown linebacker Lance Briggs, one of the best in the game at his position, complained about his contract. And now Forte is becoming more outspoken about his situation, at a time when the Bears have willingly opened their wallet over the last couple of years for players who started their careers elsewhere. See, Julius Peppers, Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall to name a few.
The truth is that the sides need each other. Forte wants to remain in Chicago, and the Bears won't be nearly as imposing without him. Bush is a solid back, but he has never had to carry the load. When he did assume starting duties for the Raiders over the second half of last season, after Darren McFadden was lost for the year with a foot injury, he averaged fewer than 3.6 yards per carry in six of the final seven games, had just one carry longer than 15 yards and totaled three rushing scores.
It's time for the Bears to stop telling Forte how valuable he is and show him instead. Actions speak much louder than words.