By 3 p.m. Chicago time on Monday, Matt Forte either will have a multi-year contract with the Bears or a one-year deal paying him a guaranteed 7.74 million under the teams franchise tag. He wont be happy about the latter, may not overjoyed with what the former ends up being, but it will be his only option for the 2012 season.
It is a situation both enviable and unenviable (depending on your feelings about someone stuck with a one-year salary just a little south of 8 million.)
A question that may nag Forte and agent Adisa Bakari is whether or not there was a window of opportunity missed to this point.
The overall here is that neither Forte nor the Bears is the heavy. Two parties in a negotiation simply disagree on a value. The Bears have left a solid offer on the table for nearly a year now; Forte sees what others at his position have gotten and wants more. The Bears have an interim ceiling amount available to them under the rules and theyre using it.
(If Forte wants to take issue with anyone, it might be his players association, for reasons coming up shortly.)
Holding out no real option now or then
Holding out is sometimes the only leverage available to an NFL player. For Forte, it wasnt a realistic course of action last year and its even less of one now.
One slant on the extended Forte situation has been that he made a mistake by not holding out during camp and into the 2011 season, when his leverage perhaps was stronger. The Bears had what they considered a solid multi-year offer on the table at the time camp opened. Forte demurred and he played, played very well.
In reality Forte needed those superb weekly performances to make the case that he now has in front of the Bears. He simply was not Matt Forte, elite back going into last year.
He finished the 2010 season with only one 100-yard rushing game and two rushing touchdowns over his last five -- clearly not the stuff of elite even with his consistently high presence in the passing offense.
The 2010 season was his first ever with more than a 3.9-yard average. He needed to play in 2011, not hold out.
Indeed, a good case can be made that then-GM Jerry Angelo and the organization were offering a deal that was reflective of what they thought Forte was on his way to becoming, not so much what hed done. The Bears were not going to bury the salary needle for a back with only one of his three seasons averaging more than 4.0 yards per carry.
He was not going to pry the Bears off their position by not playing last season.
This isnt suggesting that Forte was obligated to play simply because he had a contract. That may seem like a logical point of order, but the reality of NFL contracts is that teams fail to honor contracts whenever they cut a player with time remaining on his deal. Contracts arent guaranteed beyond specified bonuses and if a team can hold out when a player has a contract, the reverse should apply as well.
And Forte was still playing under and out-performing his rookie contract, not a renegotiated longer-term deal.
For different reasons, holding out in the 2012 season hurts Forte but arguably not the Bears. They spent this offseason diversifying their offense and roster in ways that make them less dependent on Forte or any one player (even Jay Cutler, with the addition of Jason Campbell).
The time crunch
Fortes public persona has ticked up and down during the process, from a near-universal pay the man sentiment during the first half of the 2011 season to less enthusiastic support during times he voiced unhappiness.
But Forte wanting to squeeze this situation for everything possible is less greed than recognition that this is potentially his only major contract.
Do the math.
Forte is 26. A four-year deal sends him onto the market at age 30 or, more likely, adding a year, maybe two, onto this deal in the form of an extension. That will not carry with it the kind of guaranteed money that comes with either a franchise tag or multi-year deal, regardless of what a new TV deal does to the cap in a couple years.
Forte and the Bears can both read a contract. They also can read a calendar.
The CBA twist
The franchise tag, as Phil Emery said in his first public comments after becoming Bears general manager, was negotiated by the players and the league. The Bears and every team were accorded the right to hold onto a key player with a pair of platinum handcuffs.
Players may not like it but it has always been part of the collective bargaining agreement since its 1993 inception as a concession to owners, giving them a means of retaining a franchise player for a year as long as the salary was the average of the top five at his position.
That took an unfortunate (for Forte) twist in the renegotiated CBA package arrived at a year ago. Instead of the franchise tag guaranteeing players the average of the top five for the most recent season, it became the average of the top five for the past five seasons.
For Forte, Ray Rice in Baltimore and others, that meant the guaranteed tag salary dropped from 9.5 million previously to 7.74 million. Thats not unique to running backs; the same happened to other positions like wide receiver (Wes Welker, New England) and defensive end (Cliff Avril, Detroit).