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Bears might have to pay for Matt Forte’s silence

Bears running back Matt Forte breaks away for his  second quarter touchdown run as Chicago Bears defeated CarolinPanthers 34-29

Bears running back Matt Forte breaks away for his second quarter touchdown run as the Chicago Bears defeated the Carolina Panthers 34-29 Sunday October 2, 2011 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 2, 2012 8:54AM

Now that the Philadelphia Eagles have given running back LeSean McCoy a five-year, $45 million contract with $20.8 million guaranteed, it’s time for the Bears to pay Matt Forte what he’s worth.

After all, what’s the difference between Matt Forte and LeSean McCoy? Besides the fact that McCoy scored 20 touchdowns last year and Forte scored four.

And besides the fact that McCoy scored 12 touchdowns on 32 carries inside the 10-yard line last season and Forte scored one touchdown on 12 carries inside the 10. And besides the fact that McCoy scored 10 touchdowns inside the 2-yard line last season and Forte scored none.

And besides the fact that McCoy played in 15 games last season (he was held out of a meaningless Week 17 game with a sprained ankle) while Forte played in 12 games and missed the last five with a sprained knee ligament.

And besides the fact that McCoy is 23 years old with 801 touches in the NFL and Forte is 26 with 1,237 touches in the NFL.

And besides the fact that McCoy never whined about outplaying his rookie contract despite making the Pro Bowl twice in his first three seasons while Forte moped through the 2011 season, producing career numbers but rarely hiding his displeasure with his contract situation. (Though McCoy didn’t have to play out the final year of his rookie deal nor endure the indignity of the dreaded franchise tag as Forte did.)

Besides all those apparently inconsequential factors, they’re the same exact player. So what’s taking Bears general manager Phil Emery and chief negotiator Cliff Stein so long? Just give Forte his $20 million, and let’s get on with the much-anticipated 2012 season.

Obviously, it’s not that easy. In fact, the McCoy deal only complicates matters because Forte is almost certain to be looking for that kind of money when it’s clearly debatable whether he deserves it — unless it no longer matters whether a running back scores 20 touchdowns or four in a single season.

But with a lot at stake for the Bears next season, Emery is going to have to decide at some point whether he might be better off giving Forte a ‘‘shut-up-and-play’’ deal. It might be more prudent to pay Forte more than Emery would like to avoid a holdout/distraction that could possibly derail a critical season.

The Bears have a chance to take a quantum leap on offense (with or without Forte) and could emerge as a Super Bowl contender if their defense doesn’t show its age. But until further notice, the window is more likely closing than opening. Then there’s the future of coach Lovie Smith, an issue that only would compound the misery if the Bears struggle early this season.

The Bears are teetering toward a really great season or a really depressing one. Forte can tip them in either direction. Keeping him hungry paid big dividends last season until he suffered the knee injury. But this time it’s unlikely to work out as well, especially if he holds out at the start of training camp.

Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, McCoy’s teammate, held out the first 11 days of training camp in 2011 because he wanted a long-term deal instead of playing out the last year of his rookie contract. He had a subpar season that at least contributed to the Eagles’ demise.

Therein lies the challenge for Emery and the Bears. This ain’t Kansas City. The anticipation of the season could reach a fever pitch even before training camp if the Cubs continue to rebuild without Anthony Rizzo and the White Sox run out of sub-.500 teams to dominate. From the first day in Bourbonnais, every little thing will be big and every big thing will be blown out of proportion. An unhappy or absent Forte almost certainly will be a distraction the Bears won’t be able to ignore.

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