Of all the raised eyebrows Thursday in Chicago over the Bears' sudden release of Chris Harris, those arched the highest should belong to Matt Forte. It should remind Forte how the window for success in the Not-For-Long league can be smaller than the one on your smart phone.
Forgive me for not joining the Occupy Halas Hall movement to protest Forte's relatively meager $600,000 salary. Don't misunderstand. Forte leads NFL running backs in yards from scrimmage and integrity per pound. He typically represents the Bears in an exemplary fashion and proved his professionalism by showing up for this contract year stronger than ever inside and out.
But for a guy with an innate sense of when to make a move, Forte missed an opening to daylight by stubbornly keeping his head down during negotiations. Now every time Forte takes a handoff he essentially gets behind the wheel on the Edens Expressway without a seat belt or car insurance. Potential hazards never have been greater for running backs, especially those who touch the ball as often as Forte.
I wonder what went through Forte's mind at Wembley Stadium when Buccaneers running back Earnest Graham tore his right Achilles' tendon. On the same day, Redskins running back Tim Hightower sustained a season-ending knee injury. Reports show as many running backs suffered injuries in Week 7 -- eight -- as gained 100 yards.
Forte possesses too much awareness to ignore this reality, too many smarts to think it can't happen to him. It happened to Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles in Week 2, but not before Charles signed an extension guaranteeing $13 million.
Cutthroat as it sounds, Forte is only one such bad injury away from getting his wish to become a free agent allowed to walk -- or limp -- out of town.
When Forte rejected what the Tribune learned was the Bears' best offer of more than $14 million in guarantees and an average salary around $6 million -- more than Charles and Frank Gore received -- he did so thinking he would only increase his value. What people seldom point out is how that decision by Forte and his agent significantly -- and perhaps recklessly -- increased his risk too.
For their part, the Bears have assumed no risk. As much as the Bears made extending Forte a priority after the lockout ended, nothing compels Jerry Angelo to look at Forte's NFL-leading 1,091 yards from scrimmage and reach for the checkbook. Not even Forte's understandable but uncharacteristic me-first rhetoric of late needs to concern the general manager.
If the sides cannot take advantage of the off week to strike a deal, Angelo simply can wait until February and keep Forte by designating him a franchise player. That would guarantee Forte a 2012 salary of no less than the average of the league's top five running backs -- probably $8 million.
If the Bears still can't hammer out a long-term agreement in '12, Angelo can use the same mechanisms collectively bargained by players and owners and apply the franchise tag again in 2013, assuring Forte another $8 million. Point is, the Bears control the rights to Forte for two more seasons worth nearly $16 million if they want. After the '13 season, Forte's sixth, he will be 28. That's when many running backs often begin to decline.Forte and his representative either misjudged or ignored that CBA reality in passing on the security $14 million-plus in guarantees the Bears offered. Doing so turned a player defined by hard work and humility into the symbol of a money drive. When was the last time you heard somebody mention Forte's MVP-caliber start without mentioning his salary? What's next, a telethon?
That's not Forte. He is the guy who used to run sprints at 2 a.m. back home in Louisiana because he couldn't sleep. He is the guy who quotes scripture and runs hills in the offseason like Walter Payton used to do. He is the last guy I would have suspected turning down more than $14 million and making the most important NFL statistic the numbers on his contract.
Contrary to popular opinion, the megadeals Chris Johnson of the Titans and Adrian Peterson of the Vikings signed support the Bears' position more than Forte's. After an ill-advised holdout that only ruined it for the next guy, Johnson is on pace to rush for 715 yards after signing a four-year, $53 million extension with $30 million guaranteed. Meanwhile, Peterson leads the league in rushing, but his new seven-year, $100 million deal with $36 million guaranteed didn't stop the Vikings from starting 1-6.
Pay Forte? Eventually the Bears likely will, handsomely. But in a dangerous game that promises nothing, the wait and worry could be hardest on the running back who willfully chose the more treacherous path to pay dirt.