Franchise tag season begins Monday. Make sure you get all your shopping done this weekend!
The Bears will have until March 5 to either (1) use the tag on running back Matt Forte, (2) sign the double deuce to a long term contract extension or (3) allow him to dip his toes in the calm, cool waters of free agency. Assuming the latter is a non-option (and I do), the Bears have only a few weeks to decide how much of their 2012/future salary cap to tie up in the league's most fragile position.
Many fans have been clamoring for the Bears to lock Forte up long term for the entire season. They have been joined in their somewhat tired refrain by the talking heads at the four-letters who constantly take the side of players because apparently every single retired NFL player is immediately offered work in Bristol. For those of you who haven't spent a half hour with Tim Hasselbeck and Damien Woody as they debate Peyton Manning's future I am truly envious. (I don't know who is making the football decisions at ESPN but they apparently also believe Jon Gruden is a star analyst so I give up.) The overall sentiment has been overwhelmingly pro-Forte.
But does it matter? Does any of it matter? When you take a close look at the idiotic contract the Panthers gave DeAngelo Williams or the top-heavy deal the Titans gave Chris Johnson, it becomes apparent once again that NFL franchises have their players over the pool table and they are holding the cue stick at an intimidating angle. The length of the contract (years) and salary breakdowns (per) are meaningless. All that matters to the franchise is that they give themselves as many outs over the duration of the contract as possible and Cliff Stein - Bears negotiator extraordinaire - is not know for hamstringing the team with bad contracts. What players want is guaranteed money and Matt Forte will surely seek to equal the $22 million the Panthers guaranteed Williams while falling short of the $30 million the Titans gave Johnson.
What does that mean? It means we're not actually discussing what fans think we're discussing. The "should we pay Forte" debate has nothing to do with how long the running back's tenure will be with the franchise; the only thing fans should care about. The debate has everything to do with how rich should we make Forte currently in order to satisfy him both emotionally and physically as the coming season approaches. The Bears could give Forte a five-year deal tomorrow with a boat load of guaranteed cash and still cut him before the first day of the 2014 league year. Or they could franchise tag him in 2012 and 2013, guaranteeing him about $20 million, and avoid having to cut him awkwardly in on Valentine's Day in a few years.
This is an economic matter. Not a football matter. And it is not receiving the same traction in the Houston and Baltimore markets, where their elite tailbacks (Arian Foster and Ray Rice) are currently in the exact same situation as Forte. (One could make a solid argument that were all three to hit the open market together, Forte would be the third most targeted.) The reason those stories are not stories is simple: those backs did not make it a story. If Matt Forte did not open his mouth every chance he got to complain about his deal, fans and media alike would not have made the tale their personal Passion play.
Here's the fact, as I see it. Matt Forte will be the starting tail back for the Chicago Bears in 2012. And most likely he'll be the starting tail back for the 2013 Chicago Bears. Beyond that he'll be a 28 year-old running back on the downside of his career and we may be in an NFL that outlaws rushing plays anyway.
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