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Bears GM appears to leave open contract talks with Matt Forte

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte  plays against Tennessee Titans first quarter an NFL football preseasgame Saturday Aug. 27

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte plays against the Tennessee Titans in the first quarter of an NFL football preseason game on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Frederick Breedon)

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Updated: November 9, 2011 11:55AM



On Monday, six days before the season opener, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo tabled contract talks with running back Matt Forte and linebacker Lance Briggs until after the 2011 season.

Angelo, clearly determined to address two potential distractions, told WBBM-AM (780) that the club’s focus is on the season, not the contract status of the two veterans.

Wisely, though, Angelo hedged more in commenting about Forte than Briggs.

“We feel very, very confident that Lance’s focus is going to be on the season and having a great year, and we’ll just take care of our business when that time comes, and that will be at the end of the year,” Angelo said about Briggs.

But Angelo provided a subtle caveat when talking about Forte.

“I’m not saying the door is shut,” he said, “but right now our focus is going to be on the season.”

Forte wasn’t available for comment, and his agent, Adisa Bakari, was diplomatic in his response to the Sun-Times.

“It’s the team’s prerogative not to negotiate,” Bakari said. “Matt’s going to do his best to focus on the season.”

Putting in the work

Professionalism demands that all of us who earn a paycheck do our job.

Period.

The pros in the truest sense never let on that they have issues at home or at the office. So far, Forte has handled himself well, which is why the Bears should reopen contract talks during the season.

Is Briggs underpaid?

The Bears and Briggs can make valid arguments.

But its indisputable that Forte is underpaid. He has outplayed his four-year, $3.7 million contract that will pay him $550,000 this season. According to ESPN Chicago, the Bears’ offer to Forte was between $13 and $14 million guaranteed. Remarkably, the Bears handed $13.1 million guaranteed to Forte’s backup, Chester Taylor, and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna.

Neither of those veterans panned out, and they were ousted after just one season with the team.

Angelo’s reservations about adjusting Briggs’ contract are understandable. While he’s among the league’s best outside linebackers, Briggs turns 31 in November, and giving in could create a domino effect in the Bears’ locker room.

During training camp, Angelo told me that he was “a little more mindful” of handing out contract extensions.

“It’s not that we’ve consciously changed our philosophy,” he said. “But the things that we’ve done to acquire players has altered that thinking.

“We still have players that we want. I just feel this: A lot of teams take the approach of, ‘Wait till he gets to the [unrestricted free-agent] market and let’s see, and then I don’t mind paying retail or close to retail.’ There’s nothing wrong with that, either.”

Rewarding their own

To avoid any drama, the Bears traded tight end Greg Olsen to the Carolina Panthers. They decided Olsen wasn’t an ideal fit for their offense, and they opted to salvage something (a third-round pick) out of the 2007 first-round draft pick.

But the key is not to let the ghosts of contracts past discourage.

The Bears fostered a “take care of our own” reputation by rewarding players they developed with long-term deals. The Bears have made several notable exceptions in recent years — most notably trading for Jay Cutler and signing Julius Peppers in free agency — but they still need to reinforce that they’re not run by mercenaries.

With $19 million in salary-cap space, the Bears have plenty of room to sign some players to extensions based on their performance during the season. But whenever the Bears decide to do that, the first person they should call is Bakari.

Where does Forte stand among the league’s elite running backs?

That’s obviously something the player and the club cannot agree on. But Forte had the fifth-most yards from scrimmage among running backs over the last three seasons. Forte also has distinguished himself as a good teammate and a good representative of the club.

Running back is arguably the most devalued position in the NFL given the short shelf life of players. But for all the references to diamonds in the rough such as Arian Foster, why do so many teams have so much trouble running the football? The Indianapolis Colts, consistently one of the league’s best teams, still haven’t filled the void left by Edgerrin James, who last played for them in the 2005 season.

A handful of running backs have cashed in lately, most notably Chris Johnson, who signed a contract that included a position record
$30 million guaranteed.

The Bears could play hardball and let Forte play out his current deal, then give him the franchise tag next offseason. That probably would cost them between $9 million and $10 million in 2012.

But what kind of message would that send to the locker room?

Besides, for all his diplomacy, Forte made clear to the Sun-Times on Aug. 4 that contract talks next offseason would be “more difficult.”

So if Forte has the “great year” Angelo suggested to WBBM he would have, then the Bears should consider re-opening talks during the season, not after it.



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