The Chicago Bears had one of their best second round draft picks ever in 2008, which is quite a statement for a franchise with the illustrious history the Bears have. The team has selected Pro Bowl players like Rich Petitbon and Rick Casares in that round, as well as Pro Football Hall of Fame middle linebackers Bill George and Mike Singletary. Future Hall of Fame candidate Devin Hester was also a second round selection by Chicago.
Matt Forte` was selected that year. Chicago took the halfback, despite the fact he had suffered a knee injury in his junior season at Tulane University. He exploded onto the scene as a senior, rushing for over 2,100 yards and scoring 23 times.
He was put to work right away, leading the team in rushing and receiving with career best marks of 1,231 rushing yards and 63 receptions. He also led the team with a career high mark of 12 touchdowns and 1,715 total yards.
He had broken Hall of Famer Gale Sayers team record for all purpose yards by a rookie, and the 123 yards he ran for in his first game is also a team record. Despite leading all NFL rookies in total yards and receptions, he somehow received just one for NFL Rookie of the Year.
Forte` did suffer a sophomore slump of sorts in 2009, scoring a career low four times. Despite handling the ball 64 less times, he fumbled six times as opposed to the one fumble he had as a rookie. Forte` still led the team in yards rushing and from scrimmage, as well as being just three catches away from leading the team in receiving.
He rebounded last year to run for 1,069 yards and score nine times. Though he handled the ball 27 times less than the year before, Forte` still tied for the team lead in receptions and led the team with 1,616 yards from scrimmage. It helped the Bears reach the NFC Championship Game before their season ended.
Forte` had gained 160 total yards in that game, leading all players. He led all players with 10 receptions as well. In the three years he had spent with the team, Forte` has shown remarkable durability by not missing a contest yet in his career.
His importance to the Bears franchise has been on display once again in 2011. He currently leads the league with 1,071 yards from scrimmage, and he is also averaging a career best 5.4 catches per game and 11 yards per reception. Forte' is also averaging a career best 5.4 yards per carry on 124 attempts, which has enabled him to average a career high 96 yards rushing per game after seven contests.
Yet the running back is frustrated with the way the team is treating him. Forte` makes just $600,000 annually, a far cry from what the highest paid running backs make in the league. Adrian Peterson, of the Minnesota Vikings, is currently making over $13.7 million annually.
The Bears typically like to hash out contract issues during the off-season, but a backlash on how they have dragged their heels on the Forte` situation grows daily as the running back continues to stand out. Forte` has seen his teammates tell the media he deserves a raise in pay, and Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, considered the leader of the team, recently said Forte` in the leagues most valuable player right now.
Fans have also started a campaign, hoping to get the attention of Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. Angelo reportedly offered Forte` a contract with about $14 million guaranteed before the 2011 season started, but it is a far cry from the $36 million Peterson has guaranteed. Chris Johnson, of the Tennessee Titans, has $30 million in guarantees, and the Carolina Panthers DeAngelo Williams has over $21 million in guarantees.
Not only is Forte` having a better season than any of those backs so far, he is arguably more important to the success of his team than Johnson or Williams are to theirs. Johnson has been struggling horribly so far in 2011, and Williams hardly touches the football on the Panthers pass-happy offense.
Forte` recently was found lamenting his situation to the Chicago media. He realizes the Bears can place a franchise tag on him in 2012, which would bump his salary up to possibly $8 million that year. The running believes that is no solution to the problem, and would not remain silent in his mission if the Bears decided to go that route. All he seeks is fairness, because the average career of an NFL running back is so fleeting.
‘‘The running back position is the most physically demanding on the field,’’ Forte told reporters. ‘‘Everyone acknowledges that. So to continue to give me the touches I’ve had since my rookie year but not award me a long-term contract sends the message that you’re OK grinding me into a pulp.’’
Another reason the Bears should resolve this issue quickly is because they are so reliant upon him. Their quarterback, Jay Cutler, is wildly inconsistent and extremely prone to tossing a bundle of interceptions. The Bears blocking and receiving corps are far from special as well, so the team often rides Forte's back down the field to get scoring opportunities.
Very few backs have shown they can stand up to this type of pressure over a long stretch of time. Many great running backs have succumbed to injuries after taking a tremendous beating over a few seasons. The Bears have seen this in their own ranks after watching men like Sayers, Casares, and Neal Anderson.
Few backs have lasted long carrying an entire team on their backs. Hall of Famers Walter Payton and O.J. Simpson come to mind immediately, but even Canton is full of backs whose careers were cut short due to a mountain of touches in a short span. Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson and Steve Van Buren are other examples.
The NFC North is called the "Black and Blue Division" because most contests have been decided in the trenches. Great running backs in that division have come and gone after battling those wars. The list of great running backs, whose careers were shortened, is long.
Men like Chuck Foreman, Billy Sims, John Brockington, and many more have torn up the NFL before their bodies broke down due to the wear and tear at the position. Forte` seems to understand this, as well as the fact his NFL career can end on any given play.
The Bears are run by the daughter of Hall of Famer, and founding member of the NFL, George Halas. Halas, nicknamed "Papa Bear", was known for his stinginess during his lifetime. Hall of Famer George Blanda once said Halas would make Blanda buy his own kicking shoes and even took back his signing bonus after Chicago had drafted him.
There is no proof Virginia Halas McCaskey runs the team the same way, but it certainly can be assumed she learned how to run the franchise from her dad. While her own children are also involved in the running of the team, the 88-year old McCaskey has recently been engaged in discussions about selling the team.
Angelo reports to team president Ted Phillips. Phillips, named to his position in 1999, has been with the team 27 years after previously working as an accountant. It may be the good old bottom line of dollars and cents that has kept the team from bumping up Forte's salary. But if McCaskey is set to sell the team, Phillips may want to enable the increase before new ownership takes over.
The counterpoint that Forte` has handled the ball less each season is no longer a discussion. The running back is averaging 23.1 touches per game, slightly less than the career best 23.7 touches per game he averaged as a rookie.
Forte` has averaged 20.8 touches per game, which is better than the 18.8 touches Williams has averaged in his career. The Panthers running back is averaging barely 10 touches per game this season despite having signed a huge contract during the off-season.
Johnson has averaged 22.1 touches per game, but it has been curtailed to 19 this year as his struggles continue following a hold out to get his new contract. Peterson averages 21.8 touches per game in his career, but the four-time Pro Bowler came into 2011 with 12 more fumbles than Forte`. Peterson's career high of 24 touches per game was back in 2008.
The onus is on the Bears management right now, and it would make sense for them to make their best player happy immediately. They may choose to continue the stingy ways of the deceased Papa Bear, but that would just show the game has passed them by much like it did Halas while he was alive.
Chicago currently has a 4-3 record in the 2011 season, which is only good enough for third place in their division. The Green Bay Packers are undefeated, and the Detroit Lions are 6-2. The Bears are about to face a Philadelphia Eagles team that is starting to play well.
If the Bears want to win ans stay within reach of the Packers and Lions, they must win this game Monday night. The best plan of attack is the same plan the Bears have used all season, which is give the ball to Forte` frequently. The weakness of the Eagles defense is stopping the run, so again Chicago will have to ride Forte's back for any hope of victory.
But these hopes are being placed on a unhappy man tired of being used at such a reduced rate, his salary is on par with reserves who hardly get on the field at all. The perfect strategy would be to pay Forte` now before Monday, so his happiness has a chance to shine on the gridiron.
This example was seen last week with the Buffalo Bills, who had just extended the contract of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick a few days earlier. Fitzpatrick, who has not achieved nearly as much as Forte`, then went on the field and carved up the Washington Redskins to a 23-0 victory.
If McCaskey, Phillips, and Angelo continue to ignore the obvious fact they are basically using Forte` as a piece of cheap meat, dreams of even repeating the successes of 2010 will be more unlikely with each snap of the football the rest of the way in 2011.
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