The 2012 offseason has been a very productive one for new GM Phil Emery and the Chicago Bears. Emery has wasted no time improving the roster, making a series of prolific moves that has Chicago’s fans excited about their team’s future. But even during this time of great optimism and enthusiasm, the one dark cloud that keeps hanging over everyone’s head is the ongoing contract dispute with running back Matt Forte.

Forte alluded to the fact that he felt underpaid and underappreciated as early as the beginning of last season. But, unlike many others who have been in his position (i.e. Chris Johnson), he actually played out the rest of his contract.

Forte was the Bears’ second-round draft choice in 2008, so he wasn’t offered the big-time contracts or ungodly signing bonuses that were awarded to the backs drafted in the first round. Instead, he was signed to a four-year deal worth $3.8 million, with a $1.5 million signing bonus and $2 million guaranteed.

The Bears have signed Kevin Jones, Chester Taylor and Marion Barber in recent years, but Forte has led them in rushing every year since he entered the league in 2008. He’s also never been one to publicly voice his opinion even when his contract didn’t come close to reflecting the kind of contributions he was making to his team. But it appears as if the recent signing of Michael Bush (four years, $14 million) has finally pushed Forte over the edge.  

Forte took to Twitter last week to express his frustration about the treatment he has received from the Bears: “There's only so many times a man that has done everything he's been asked to do can be disrespected! Guess the GOOD GUYS do finish last....”

I’m not sure what Forte is hoping to gain through his public rants, but he’s not going to get much fan support by publicly criticizing a move that clearly makes the team better. He may not be happy about Bush joining him in the backfield, but any way you look at it, the acquisition of a back with Bush’s skill level makes the
Bears a much deeper and more dangerous team.

Forte missed the last four games of the season last year due to a knee injury. If he has to miss significant time again, Chicago knows they have a very capable backup in Bush who can step in and put up big numbers. Bush was inserted into the starting position for the Raiders last season when Darren McFadden went down with a foot injury after Week 7. He finished the year with 256 carries for 977 yards and 7 TDs.

Instead of condemning the move through the public media, Forte should embrace it. The Bush signing is an insurance policy. Chicago was looking to add some depth to the running back position, not replace Forte as the starter. And at only $14 million for four years, that’s a steal considering the kind of year that Bush had in 2011.

To Forte’s credit, he did make it clear that he’s not upset with the team for getting Bush; he just seems frustrated that the team has once again ignored his requests for a new deal. "For the record I'm not mad at the signing of another running back. This is 4th time that's happened. I embrace competition as well as help,” Forte said.

Instead of signing Forte to a long-term deal, the Bears slapped the franchise tag on him. This means that they have the right to keep him for a 1-year contract at a price that has been pre-set in the leagues collective bargaining agreement. In this case, the franchise deal for a running back is $7.7 million. And Forte- who made $600,000 last season despite leading the team in rushing and receiving yards- is not happy. He believes that he’s a top five back and therefore should be paid like one.

Which essentially leaves Forte with two options. He can sign the $7.7 million tender offer and show up to training camp ready to help the Bears contend for NFC North crown. Or he can hold out with the hope that the Bears eventually give in and offer him a long-term deal. If he indeed does choose to hold out, that means he will be forfeiting his potential pay until another contract can be negotiated. And further complicating things is the fact that the Bears don’t have that money available in their salary cap. So if Forte does hold out, he will most likely not receive the big money that he’s been clamoring for and the Bears lose one of their best offensive weapons.

While I can certainly see where Forte is coming from, the timing of this entire ordeal could not have come at a worse time. The Bears made a big splash in free agency three weeks ago when they acquired stud receiver Brandon Marshall from the Miami Dolphins for only two third-round draft picks. The deal has given Chicago the No.1 receiver that they so desperately have needed the last few seasons and has reunited quarterback Jay Cutler with his former Bronco teammate.

The Bears also picked up former Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell to back up Cutler. As is the case with Bush, Campbell has been brought in for insurance in case #6 goes down again like he did last season. The Caleb Hanie experiment was an absolute disaster and Chicago wants to make sure that they have a viable replacement should Cutler get injured again.

The acquisitions of Bush, Marshall and Campbell make the Bears a much deeper and well-rounded team. It’s a shame that fans can’t enjoy the progress being made these past few weeks because of the lingering concern that Matt Forte might not be our running back once training camp gets under way. His contract dispute has tainted an otherwise dynamic offseason that has given Chicago fans hope Phil Emery will be what Jerry Angelo was incapable of for so many years:

A competent, and courageous general manager.

According to chief executive officer Ted Phillips, the Bears have offered Forte a new “strong offer” that they hope he is happy with. And even though they signed Bush, Forte will continue to be the guy the team builds around. “Matt Forte is our No. 1 running back,” Phillips said. “He's been told that, and he knows that. We all know that. He's going to be a Bear for 2012, at least. He knows he has a long-term offer on the table, and we hope, at some point and time, he chooses to accept that.”

Bears fans are hoping that as well. They’re also hoping that 2012 isn’t the last time they see Matt Forte in a Chicago Bears uniform.