Forte's longevity a factor in contract talks

Bears concerned how 26-year-old running back's knees will hold up

Not sure running back Matt Forte noticed, but the Bears all but announced this week they now think they are a passing team.

Hardly able to contain his excitement at Halas Hall, quarterback Jay Cutler threw passes in the general direction of Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall under the guidance of whiz-kid quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates.

While Forte skipped the first week of organized team activities because of a contract dispute that the Tribune has learned includes concerns over Forte's knees, Cutler and Marshall took turns complimenting each other. When they weren't reminiscing about 2008, that is.

Is it worth pointing out the Broncos' leading rusher that season gained 343 yards?

Nothing about coordinator Mike Tice's newly installed Broncos-styled offense Cutler and Marshall described made anybody conclude it needs a marquee running back. It functioned at a high level in '08 with a running back committee, a point I hope the Bears avoid trying to prove in '12.

Anyway, despite Pro Bowl-caliber productivity in 2011, Forte picked the worst offseason to gauge his worth to a Bears offense in transition.

His value remains a source of debate and contention.

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy's five-year, $45 million deal with $20.8 million in guarantees was thought to provide a blueprint for Forte, who has yet to sign the one-year franchise tender guaranteeing him $7.7 million. It raised hopes to everyone who didn't realize that a five-year, $40 million deal with $20 million in guarantees was what Forte sought before a stellar season likely drove up his price, a source said.

Also overlooked was that McCoy is 29 months younger and has been used considerably less, a factor considering a source claimed Forte's durability has emerged as an obstacle during negotiations.

Throughout the league, people have wondered why the Bears can't agree on a multiyear contract extension for one of the NFL's most productive running backs. A major sticking point could stem from the Bears' worry over how long Forte's knees will hold up, a source suggested to the Tribune. The wear and tear on Forte's knees drew the attention of several teams, including the Bears, before the 2008 NFL draft when he came out of Tulane.

According to the source, given Forte's past the Bears cannot rule out arthritis setting in and becoming a chronic problem for the fifth-year running back with 1,237 career NFL touches who turns 27 in December. In the NFL, data show running backs start declining after age 28.

Those realities are one of several issues making the Bears reluctant to meet Forte's demands for the contract he seeks believed to be worth more in overall value and guarantees than McCoy's. Their concerns don't necessarily mean both sides cannot find middle ground before the July 16 deadline to agree to a contract. Frank Gore of the 49ers is an example of a running back with a spotty injury past who signed a long-term extension.

But if the sides finally agree, expect any compromise to balance understandable caution over Forte's knees and the Bears' wish to pay for harmony by rewarding Forte.

Trepidation over durability also could explain why the Bears have been so aggressive in signing expensive backups such as Chester Taylor, Marion Barber and Michael Bush in recent years.

Efforts to reach Forte's agent, Adisa Bakari, for comment were unsuccessful. The Bears don't comment on negotiations.

Forte has history with both knees. He tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in November 2006 at Tulane and that injury, combined with 833 carries in college primarily on artificial surfaces, caused a handful of teams to note worries over the length of his NFL career. He suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in the same knee in 2009, his second year, and had postseason arthroscopic surgery.

In the midst of his best season last year, Forte missed the Bears' final four games after suffering an MCL sprain in his right knee. He then played in the Pro Bowl.

Even in an offense tailored to accentuate the strengths of Cutler and Marshall, Forte could perform at an elite level next season. Theoretically, Forte could skip OTAs and training camp and return in time to make an impact in Week 1 for a Bears team with every reason to think playoffs.

It's not what Forte might do next year that's interfering with a new contract, or even in 2013 when the Bears still control his rights by virtue of the franchise tag.

It could be the Bears' fear Forte doesn't have a leg to stand on when he contends he will be worth the investment as long as any extension lasts.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
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