Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Thoughts on Matt Forte Salary Issue

Second Round Money on First Contract

Matt Forte was a second round pick, selected as the 44th pick in the 2008 draft. His contract reflects the fact that there were five first round picks at running back selected before the Bears called Forte's number. In large part this was due to several college juniors coming out for the 2008 draft. Some of these young players have taken a while to develop, while Forte was excellent right out of the gate. His current contract numbers should not be surprising to fans and the media because he was in fact a second round pick. His performance has been that of a first round back.

Some suggest that the Bears should have paid Forte more money. They suggest that he got the shaft. But the facts remain, the Bears and Forte agreed on a fair contract that was in keeping with a running back who was a second round pick. That's pretty much the way it works.

Benson Was First Round Pick

Cedric Benson was the number 4 pick in the first round of the 2005 draft. The Bears gave him first round money, a 5-year $35 Million dollar contract with $17 Million in guaranteed money. After peaking at 674 yards rushing in 2007, Benson was released by the Bears. The Bengals picked him up and offered a one year bargain basement deal for $525,000--he started to come around. Benson was only worth $525,000 for a one-year deal because he had not performed. He improved his game and he's made millions each year since then. Benson is still a young man and might have many years remaining to play excellent football. Although it's hard to see someone fail in the Bears camp, we hope he continues to do well elsewhere and live up to his potential.

The Bears have been criticized for paying Benson when Benson was not working out. Now the Bears are criticized for not paying Forte more while he is still under a contract that was negotiated based on his status at the time.

Forte an Excellent Draft Choice

The media should be congratulating the Bears for picking Forte--they made an excellent choice. Forte is following in some pretty big footsteps. Bears fans expect an excellent running back to be part of their team as much as they expect a hard-nosed defense.

Forte's Three Seasons

Soft-spoken Matt Forte has three complete seasons with the Bears. In his first year 2008, he had 316 rushes for 1,238 yards and a 3.9 yard average. Any time a running back gains over a thousand yards, it gets fans' attention like a baseball player who hits over .300. That same year, 2008, Forte had 63 receptions for 477 yards and a 7.6 yard average. Those numbers are very impressive as well. Forte's total yards gained equaled 1,715. He also scored 12 TDs for the Bears. On an offense that has struggled to get the right mix of receivers, Forte's value as a pass catcher should not be overlooked. However, if the Bears have improvements in the receiver corp, Forte may be called on less as a receiver.

In 2009, Forte's second year, he had 258 rushes for 929 yards and a 3.6 average. He had 57 receptions for 471 yards and an 8.3 average. His total yards for the season were 1,400. He scored 4 TDs. In 2008, many thought Forte was going to be something special in the future. After 2009, many thought Forte was going to be serviceable, but not spectacular. Even with 1400 yards, the sub-1000 yard rushing sounded some alarms in a town where running backs have been so much a part of the offense. In 2009, he averaged just 2.1 yard per carry against San Francisco, just 2.2 yards per carry against Green Bay and Pittsburgh, and 2.4 against Philadelphia. Forte was "stuffed" too often in 2009. Of course, it was also Jay Cutler's first year with the Bears and the offense was struggling mightily to find its identity.

In 2010, Forte rushed 237 times for 1,069 yards netting a 4.5 yard average. His 51 receptions gave him 547 yards and a 10.7 average. His total yardage for the year was a hefty 1,616. He scored 6 TDs. It was a yeoman's labor for the year and fans were grateful to see Forte's numbers rise again. The season was not without its disappointments. Against Seattle, Forte rushed for a 1.4 yard average and thus was only asked to carry the ball 8 times. Against the Giants, he averaged just 2.2 on 12 carries.

Post Season Play

In the Bears playoff win against Seattle, Matt Forte's numbers improved over the Bears-Seahawks regular season match up. He ran for 80 yards on 25 carries for a 3.2 yard average. Not exactly a blistering day, but better.

In the NFC Championship against the Packers, he ran 17 times for 70 yards, averaging 4.1 a carry. Unfortunately Forte could not save the day against the Packers. Cutler did not play well against the Packers that day. The Bears just couldn't put the ball in the end zone in the first half. After Cutler was injured, and backup Todd Collins was ineffective/injured, the Bears ended up throwing Caleb Haney into the game on a wing and prayer. It almost worked. But if it had worked, it would have been Caleb Haney's victory not Matt Forte's.

Forte's Totals and His Place in Bear History

In Forte's first three years, he has 811 rushes for 3236 yards at an average of 4 yards per carry. He has 171 receptions for 1495 yards and an 8.74 yard average. His total yards for the three year period are 4731 and he has 22 touchdowns.

If Forte didn't play another game for the Bears his performance would stand out as an excellent one in the annals of Bears football. But because the Bears have not won a championship with him, he would probably become a footnote in franchise history.

Forte's game makes the Bears become a much better team. When Forte is a threat, it creates more opportunities for the passing game. With Cutler and Forte at their best, they might be able to take the Bears to a championship, but any kind of legacy is ahead of them.

Payton Factor

Bears fans measure all running backs against Walter Payton. Payton had a 4.4 yard average after 13 years. He had 3838 carries for 16726 total rushing yards and 110 rushing touchdowns. Payton had 492 receptions for 4538 yards. He had 15 receiving touchdowns--giving him a total of 125 touchdowns in all. In terms of rushing numbers, at Forte's rate, he will need to play for 16 seasons to surpass Payton's rushing numbers. Matt Forte would pass Walter Payton's receiving yards total in his 10th season at his current rate. Bear fans love their running backs when they do well, but they have high expectations.

Contract Considerations

NFL contracts are complicated. It is likely that the only people who can definitively know the true value of a players contract and understand its terms are the player's agent and the NFL Team's negotiator. NFL contracts often include signing bonuses, performance bonuses and even workout bonuses. Adrian Peterson had a sweetener in one of his contacts that would give him an extra $1 Million if he scored 20 touchdowns.

Contracts can also include other incentives that either come to play or don't. Guaranteed money can make a huge difference in an industry where career ending injuries can happen in a heart beat. Contracts can be front-loaded (where most of the pay is in the early years) or back-loaded (where the pay is in the later years) and everything in between. On a front-loaded contract, the players and their agents can gripe about poor pay in the final years of the contract. Don't shed any tears for these guys until you know what they got up front. Looking at an annual average salary for the contract term is one way to try to see through some of the smoke.

In this post, we use numbers from Spotrac to help give our discussion some objective measure, but not knowing all the ins and outs of specific contracts, any discussion here is more of the hand-grenade variety than anything scientific.

Some are using Forte's 2011 salary figure of $555,000 to measure against what other running backs are making. That can be misleading. Forte received a $1.533 Million signing bonus so according to Spotrac, Forte made on average $945,250 a year on his 4-year contract. That sounds a lot better than $555,000 although it is not a huge amount by any means in NFL contracts.

2008 First Round Running Back Contracts

First round running backs coming into the NFL in 2008 got 5 and 6 year contracts. The top selected running back in the 2008 draft was Darren McFadden of the Raiders. McFadden did not get nearly as many carries and receptions with the Raiders in his first two years as Forte got in his first 2 years with the Bears. Thus it's easy enough to say that McFadden was not as valuable as Forte. His total yards for the three year period come to 3050 and he has 15 touchdowns. However, last year his total yards were 1664, surpassing Forte. McFadden signed a 6 year $60 million contract with Oakland--giving him an annual salary average of $10 Million with $26 Million guaranteed. His base salary actually peaks this year, the fourth year of his contract at $7.055 Million.

The second running back selected in the 2008 draft was Jonathan Stewart of the Carolina Panthers. His total yards for the three-year period are 3028 and he has 24 touchdowns. Stewart signed a 5 year $14 million contract with Carolina that included $10.795 million guaranteed. His salary averages $2.8 Million. Stewart shares running back duties at Carolina with DeAngelo Williams and so his numbers would likely be much higher if he played for a team that featured a single back.

The third running back selected was Felix Jones of he Dallas Cowboys. Jones has 2330 total yards for the three period and 24 touchdowns. Jones signed a 5 year $10.53 million contract with Dallas that includes $7.665 Million guaranteed. His contact provides for an average salary of $2.105 Million. Coming on strong this year in Dallas is rookie DeMarco Murray who already has rushed for 400 yards so far this year. In 2008 and 2009, Marion Barber accounted for roughly 225 rushes for 900 yards each season. Thus even before Murray arrived, Jones was sharing carries with another back. Like Stewart in Carolina, Jones will be sharing rushing duties with another back for Dallas--the Cowboys seem to prefer two strong running backs. His numbers may never be close to Forte's because of his team's approach.

The fourth running back selected was Rashard Mendenhall of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mendenhall has 2884 total yards and 21 touchdowns in his first three years--not brilliant numbers, but Mendenhall does show flashes of brilliance. Mendenhall signed a 5 year $9.855 million contract with Pittsburgh that includes $7.125 Million guaranteed and averages $1.971 Million per year. Jonathan Dwyer in his second year at Pittsburgh has excited some fans while he was backing up Mendenhall. Whether due to injuries or tough competition, or an offensive strategy in some games that calls for more passes, Mendenhall is not likely to achieve Forte numbers.

Thus, the first four running backs in the 2008 draft have not achieved second-round Matt Forte's performance.

The fifth running back signed is a different story. That back is Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans. Johnson has monster numbers. He has 5605 total yards and 40 touchdowns. Johnson originally signed a 5-year $12 Million contract, but in September 2011, he and the Titans penned a new 6-year for $55.26 million with $30 Million guaranteed. Johnson is averaging $9.21 Million under his new contract.

Only one running back selected in the first round of the 2008, Chris Johnson,has surpassed Forte. Forte's total yards come in at about 85% of Johnson's.

Forte in the Division

How good is Forte in the NFC North Division? For Bears fans, one player who sticks out in division play is Adrian Peterson of the Vikings. Like Chris Johnson, Peterson has put up monster numbers and has a monster contract. Peterson began his career in 2007 a year prior to the other players mentioned in this post although it seems like he's been around forever. Taking his numbers for the last three years, Peterson has 5343 total yards and 41 touchdowns. Peterson and the Vikings penned a 7-year $96 Million contract extension. Peterson's deal averages $13,714,286 and $36 Million is guaranteed.

Forte's total yards come in at about 88% of Peterson's for the three-year period.

Other Comparable Backs

Perhaps a comparable performing running back to Matt Forte is Michael Turner. Turner has 4102 total yards for the Falcons in the last three year period. He is paid an average of $5.75 Million per year in his 6-year deal with Atlanta. Turner is 29 years old.

Steven Jackson of the Rams has rushed for 3236 yards the past three years and along with his receptions total of 1084 yards gives him 4783 yards in all. He has scored 18 touchdowns. He is paid an average of $7,467,500 per year in his 6-year deal with
the Rams.

At least one media source stated that Jerry Angelo had offered Forte $6 Million a year for a new contract this year. Once the season began, the contract negotiation seems to have ended to be settled after the season. There have been many "pay the man" comments all over the Internet, so one has to assume that many people think Forte is worth more than what Angelo offered. Otherwise, they would be saying, "sign the contract" Matt.

Bottom Line

Angelo may like to get his contracts all lined up in order going into each new season. Thus, I don't think it is necessarily posturing on Angelo's part to put the Forte contract on ice until after the season. Then there is much scuttlebutt about making Forte a franchise player, thus giving him a set one-year contract to "force" him into another year of service.

On the other hand, maybe the Bears were not so anxious to re-sign Forte because they don't want him to be a $7 Million back. Maybe they want him to be a $10 Million dollar back. Peppers, Urlacher, Cutler, and Hester are all $10 Million men for the Bears. The Bears might actually want to pay Forte the big bucks, but to join that club, they want to see him put the offense on his shoulders and win the big game like the Bears-Packers NFC Championship game that was lost last year. They want him to excel even when much of the offense may sputter. Angelo might just be issuing that kind of challenge. Maybe it's his way of saying, a truly great back will figure out a way to get more than 70 yards rushing in a championship game. "Show me your stuff in the big game and we'll show you the money."

Copyright 2011, Sporting Chance Press, Inc. Sporting Chance Press is the publisher of Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout by Patrick McCaskey.

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