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Bears’ Jerry Angelo might have the right ‘Theo-ry’ for not paying Matt Forte

Fans might want Bears pay Matt Forte (22) but NFL running backs are short-term commodities. | David J. Phillip~AP

Fans might want the Bears to pay Matt Forte (22), but NFL running backs are short-term commodities. | David J. Phillip~AP

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Updated: December 6, 2011 8:17AM



When Theo Epstein says that players should be paid for future ­performance rather than past accomplishments, people involuntarily drop to their knees at such brilliant, analytical thinking.

When Jerry Angelo takes a similar tack with Matt Forte, he’s an idiot and a mouthpiece for the genetically cheap McCaskeys.

Do I have that about right?

The Cubs’ new president of baseball operations is a brainy visionary.

The Bears’ general manager wouldn’t know greatness if he got ear-holed by it.

Believe me, I understand: Epstein won two World Series when he was with the Red Sox, and Angelo hasn’t won a title in Chicago. He’s the bumbling GM who trips over his tongue, the one who can’t put together an offensive line.

But he’s right on this subject.

He’s taking the very same approach for which Epstein has been lauded. Angelo is impressed by Forte’s production but can’t help but notice that running backs wear down in the NFL, often at warp speed. He also can’t help but notice that, given a good offensive line, a running back doesn’t have to be Walter Payton to succeed in the NFL. The Broncos of the late 1990s and early 2000s immediately come to mind.

Running backs get chewed up

In an interview this week with the Sun-Times’ Sean Jensen, Forte had sharp words for the Bears — sharper than he has had at any time during his quest for a long-term contract.

But one comment stood out.

‘‘The running back position is the most physically demanding on the field,’’ Forte said. ‘‘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.’’

The Bears are indeed grinding him into a pulp. It’s what NFL teams do. Running backs get beaten up and worn down. That’s in the job description.

Forte turns 26 next month. Of the top 13 rushing leaders, 10 are 26 or younger. The Bills’ Fred Jackson, who is 30, is only in his third year as a starter, and the Falcons’ Michael Turner (29) is in his fourth. Of the over-26 group, only the 49ers’ Frank Gore, who is 28, has been a longtime starter.

Why would the Bears give a running back a lot of money if history shows most of them slow down and get hurt more often as the years pile up? How is that good business?

Forte leads the league in combined rushing and receiving yards per game. Surely, the Bears are feeling the pressure of that success. How many times this season have we heard teammates, fans and media members say, “Pay the man”? By that, they mean, Give him a huge contract as a reward for the numbers he has put up.

Forte has been wonderful this season. That’s not debatable. The Bears likely wouldn’t be 4-3 without him. So it’s understandable he would take the stalled negotiations personally. But this is business, and business says that paying a running back a big contract is a risky thing indeed.

The Chris Johnson precedent

The Bears have been closely watching what has happened to the Titans’ Chris Johnson, who signed a contract with $30 million in guaranteed money Sept. 1. The man who rushed for a combined 4,598 yards the previous three seasons has 302 yards on 107 carries this season. Those numbers don’t mean Johnson’s career is going downhill; they mean he certainly isn’t doing a certain Bears running back any favors.

Forte wants something similar to what Johnson, the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson ($36 million) and the Panthers’ DeAngelo Williams ($21 million) received in guarantees. Good luck with that.

Before the season, the Bears offered Forte a contract extension that included guarantees of about $13 million or $14 million. He rejected it. Fair enough. That’s his prerogative. The Bears very well might put the franchise tag on him for 2012, which would be the smart move if they’re convinced he’s at the peak of his abilities. It would cost them about $7.5 million.

If that sounds hardhearted (if $7.5 million can be considered hardhearted), it’s because pro sports is a hardhearted business.

It also sounds very shrewd, very Theo-like: You pay for what you project someone will do, not for what someone has done.

When Epstein goes in that direction, it’s considered forward-thinking. When Angelo goes there, it’s considered hopelessly backward.

Maybe, just maybe, Angelo is smarter than his NFL management brethren on this issue.



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