The NFL is charging towards the July 16th deadline for franchise tagged players to finalize and sign long-term deals.
And while Matt Forte and the Bears continue to talk contract, the reality appears to be that they’re no closer to finalizing a deal than they were at the end ot the 2011 season.
While Forte has acknowledged that he plans to be on the sidelines for Week 1 when the Bears take the field against the Indianapolis Colts, in an interview on WSCR-AM 670 in Chicago he said that without a signed long-term deal he’ll likely skip training camp and preseason games.
If Forte takes that step though, he better be prepared to watch his one chance at signing a major, guaranteed-money deal slip away faster than Curtis Enis’ career.
Forte has said that holding out of OTAs and minicamp was a case of using the leverage available to him to push negotiations towards a final deal. Since he had no contract in place, he’s correct that holding out during those team activities was the best option available to him.
After the July 16th deadline though, Forte holding out of camp can only be seen as stubbornness since his leverage for obtaining a long-term contract after that date was negotiated away from him courtesy of the Players Association as part of the latest collective bargaining agreement.
By missing OTAs and mincamp Forte is already behind the curve in picking up the new pages that former offensive line coach and new offensive coordinator Mike Tice has added to the Bears' playbook since the departure of Mike Martz, the Galactic Emperor of Offense.
The new offense is expected to incorporate quite a bit of what quarterback Jay Cutler used successfully during his years with the Broncos but leave most, if not all, of the running game essentially unchanged from what the Bears have used the past couple of seasons.
That doesn’t mean Forte steps right back into his comfort zone Week 1. Tice has been part of the offensive coaching unit for two seasons but he was also head coach of the Vikings for five seasons and will have his own ideas incorporated into the offense.
Also, there are always changes in terminology with a new system and if the passing game is being reworked, there will be check down routes and blocking assignments that still need to be learned. Michael Bush has attended OTAs and minicamp which gives him a better understanding of what will be going on with the Tice offense even though he’s new to the team.
Each week Forte stays away from camp puts Michael Bush that much farther ahead of him on the playbook learning curve.
Sitting out training camp is also going to hurt Forte in terms of conditioning, which doesn’t mean being in excellent physical shape, which from all reports Forte is in, but being in the condition it takes to play football at game speed. To get an idea of how holding out of camp can affect a running back’s performance throughout the season, an example can be taken by the holdout of running back Chris Johnson from the Titans last year.
Johnson held out for an extension of his rookie contract, which still had two years left to run and agreed to an extension a week before their opening game against Jacksonville. Johnson, the same as Forte this season, stayed in shape in anticipation of signing a contract and joined the team with seven days remaining to the Titans' opening game.
When Johnson got to camp he was immediately put into meetings to start learning the intricacies of new offensive coordinator Chris Palmer’s playbook while getting a full week of practices heading into the Titans’ opening game road matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars. When Johnson took the field for the game he sunk into the Jacksonville turf, gaining 24 yards on nine carries for a 2.7 yards per attempt average.
Things didn’t get much better for Johnson the rest of 2011. He broke 100-yards in a game four times but didn’t crack 50-yards five times. He was only below 50 yards in a game six times in his first three seasons. Johnson went from 12 rushing/receiving touchdowns in 2010 to four in 2011.
Even the all-time leading rusher in NFL history hit the ground crawling after a holdout prior to the 1993 season. Emmitt Smith was a restricted free agent after winning two consecutive rushing titles and was ready for his salary to match his stature as one of the best players in the game.
In a very nasty, contentious contract holdout, Smith stayed away for the first two weeks of the season, both Cowboys losses, before finally coming to agreement with Jerry Jones and joining the Cowboys prior to their Week 3 game against the Cardinals.
In Smith’s case, he always kept himself in shape and he didn’t have a new offense to learn but with no training camp and a limited week of practice he still saw reduced time on the field against the Cardinals. Rookie running back Derrick Lassic rushed 14 times to Smith’s 8 and also scored two touchdowns in the Cowboys’ first win of the season.
Smith picked up more carries the following week but it was still short of a featured back's full load. It wasn’t until Week 5 that Smith regained his role as the Cowboys’ full-time running back. Smith did end the season as the NFL’s leading rusher but that shouldn't be surprising. He was a Hall of Fame running back and part of one of the most dominant offenses of the 1990s.
Matt Forte is a very good running back but to expect him to surpass what Chris Johnson, a back who had never rushed for less than 1,000-yards in a season and led the NFL in 2009, and Emmitt Smith were able to accomplish after their holdouts would be stretching the imagination into Fantasyland.
Forte’s teammates have been publicly supportive of his absence during team activities so far this offseason. Brian Urlacher came out in Forte’s corner recently, “As long as (Forte’s) there September 9, that’s all that counts. Yes, we want him to get his money and get his contract. We know he’s going to be there when he needs to be.”
Head Coach Lovie Smith has only made a couple of comments regarding the Matt Forte situation and while he wasn’t critical (the next time Smith is critical of a player in public will be when new climate change weather patterns send a cold front through Hades), the comments also fell far short of supportive.
When asked if he hoped Forte would get his long-term deal Smith said, "We want everyone on our team to be happy." Smith also said, "Whatever is presented us during that time, we'll deal with it," when he was asked about Forte sitting out through training camp.
Lovie Smith will never publicly criticize Forte for doing what he feels he needs to do but Smith doesn’t have an overall winning record as the Chicago Bears' head coach because he gives in to sentiment when it comes time to decide who gets to start on Sunday.
Between picking up the new offense and getting his body into game condition, it’s a strong trend that Forte will be battling if he thinks he can join the team for Week 1 as the same back he was in 2011. He may get that same effectiveness back but only after serving as Michael Bush’s backup for a minimum of two games into the season.
At that point Forte will be a longshot to amass the stats he will need to make a new case for a long-term contract during the 2013 offseason. If Matt Forte sits out of training camp because he and the Bears can’t resolve contract issues by July 16th he will be pushing the self-destruct button on what was shaping up to be a long, productive career.