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What should the Bears do with Matt Forte?

Once Jay Cutler went down injured last season, some fans still remained optimistic that running back Matt Forte would be able to mitigate the loss of our starting quarterback. What actually happened, and what has seemingly become a trend in Chicago sports, is Forte was lost for the season due to a knee injury two games later.

Before the start of last season, the Bears attempted to finalize a contract extension with Forte, but were unable to do so. Forte elected to wait until after the season to continue negotiations, but after his injury, the two parties have been unable to come to agreement. This has prompted Forte to holdout of all team activities until an extension is reached. Since the two sides first initiated negotiations, running backs DeAngelo Williams, Arian Foster, Fred Jackson, and recently LeSean McCoy have all been given extensions. So why have the Bears refused to do so?

While the Bears front office and the McCaskey family are notoriously frugal, they recently signed Julius Peppers to the biggest contract of the 2010 offseason, as well as extending both Jay Cutler and Lance Brigg’s contracts. Also, the trade for Brandon Marshall added an additional $9.3 million to the 2012-2013 payroll. Given these moves, the Bears front office has been willing to shell out money to acquire and keep talent.

Matt Forte was one of the best running backs in the NFL last year. He accounted for more of his team’s offense than any other player prior to his injury, and given the poor state of the receiving corps, Forte was also our best receiver. Forte essentially assumed the role Marshall Faulk  played in Mike Martz ‘ offense during the “Greatest Show on Turf” years of the St. Louis Rams. Over the past two seasons when Forte is given 16 carries or more, the Bears are 14-2; when he doesn’t (I blame Mike Martz for these games) they are 5-9.

What Forte is looking for is a contract akin that of Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson ($10-11 million per season), whereas the Bears are looking more in the range of the previous running backs mentioned ($7-9 million per season).

This essentially boils down to whether the Bears decision to not resign Forte is a calculated and intelligent decision or alternatively, one of the worst moves in recent Bears history? (Given that this is the Bears, there are a couple hundred to choose from).

I believe the Bears are making the right move by not offering Forte a contract in the same range as Johnson and Peterson, and there is no reason why Forte shouldn’t accept the same deal McCoy or Foster were given. The issue with handing out so much money to a running back is that it is the most fragile and shortest-lived position in football. According to a study by the NFL Player’s Association, the average length of an NFL career is only 3.3 years, and the lowest of all positions is at running back at 2.8 years.

Forte has a history of knee injuries beyond last year’s season-ending one. In 2009, he also sprained his MCL and in 2006 he tore his PCL. Running backs take a beating on every play either through blocking or running, and agreeing to pay someone $10-11 million dollars per season given such extensive injury history is not a sound investment.

The list of bad running back contracts is extensive: Corey Dillion, Ricky Williams, Shaun Alexander, Priest Holmes, and Jamal Anderson to name a few. Investing $10+ million dollars into such a fragile position is not only a bad investment at the position, but it also drastically affects shaping the rest of the roster. Currently the Bears have placed the franchise tag on Forte, which gives him a one-year salary of $8 million dollars. This allows the Bears more time to work on a contract, but Forte continues to holdout until a long-term deal is reached.

The Bears made the right decision to bring in Michael Bush. For the first time in a long-time, the backup running back position is settled. Bush carried the load for the Raiders backfield last year once Darren McFadden went down, and is an extremely good runner in the red zone, something lacking from Forte thus far in his career. Given this, if Forte’s holdout extends into the season, the production from the position will not be detrimentally affected.

The Bears and Forte’s agent, Adisa Bakari, should be able to use the recently signed extensions as a barometer for Forte’s contract. New General Manager Phil Emery seems like he has a better grasp of running a football team than his predecesor Jerry Angelo did, so he will ultimately make the the right decision. If Forte balks at the Bears offers, they will not hesitate to move on without him and look to trade him. Bears fans have a right to be disappointed if a deal is not reached, but there is so much turnover between NFL seasons that the franchise has to keep the big picture in mind.

Brandon Marshall: The Key to Jay Cutler’s Ignition

With Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler back together, an offensive juggernaut may be born in Chicago.

The Chicago Bears had arguably the worst corps of receivers in the NFL last season. Even after missing four games, Matt Forte still led the team, from the backfield, with 52 receptions. The top two receivers on the depth chart, Johnny Knox and Roy Williams, caught 37 balls a piece, good for 109th in the league. Knox finished with a team-high 727 receiving yards. More importantly, the Bears haven’t had a single 1000-yard receiver since Marty Booker in 2002. In fact, this franchise has only produced 11 1000-yard receivers EVER. The Arizona Cardinals had three of them on THE SAME TEAM just four years ago. I can go on and on about this, but one thing is clear: the Bears have lacked a playmaker (outside of running back) for as long as most of us can remember. It’s probably no coincidence that we’ve only won one Super Bowl in its 46-year existence (and that happened to be the best defensive team in the history of the NFL). Jerry Angelo, the worst man ever, didn’t seem to understand this. Hence his firing after the season.

Insert Phil Emery. What was his first move? He went out and got us a dangerous playmaker in Brandon Marshall. And Jay Cutler went from a very unhappy person to just an unhappy person, which says a lot. With the news of Marshall finally being cleared of any wrongdoing for a nightclub incident in March, I figured there’s no better time than to breakdown what kind of impact he should have on Cutler and this Bears team going forward. Below is a chart of Marshall’s numbers over the past five seasons:

The touchdown numbers may scare you, I know. However, that has more to do with Cutler, Orton, Henne and Moore, all of whom are known to be poor red zone quarterbacks, than it does Marshall. He finished in the top five in both targets and red zone targets during his three full seasons in Denver, and he finished in the top 12 in targets and top 6 in red zone targets during his two seasons with Miami. Simply put, quarterbacks trust Marshall, especially inside the 20 yard line. The numbers alone show you that he is as reliable a wide receiver as there is in this game. It is very difficult to maintain the consistency that Marshall has at the professional level. Even with terrible quarterbacks throwing him the ball in Miami, he still managed to put up very solid numbers.

Now, think about the impact Marshall had on Cutler. During their two full seasons together in Denver, Cutler targeted Marshall an average of 186 times. That’s unheard of. Consider the fact that Denver was 10th in the NFL in total yards per game (346.3) in 2007 and 2nd in 2008 (395.6), and you realize that the Cutler-Marshall combo is a perfect marriage (if you think a supporting cast of Eddie Royal, a running back by committee and Tony Scheffler is scarier than Forte/Bush, Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and a healthy Johnny Knox, you’re sadly mistaken). With Cutler at the helm during his first three seasons in Chicago, the offense averaged just 217.1, 194.1 and  231.9 yards per game, respectively. His completion percentage went from 62.9% as a full-time starter for the Broncos to 59.9% with the Bears. And finally, his interception rate has gone from 0.89 picks per game to 1.20. The argument can be made that the Bears offensive line has been horrendous, so obviously Cutler’s numbers were going to take a hit. However, a lot of that had to do with the way Mike Martz ran his offense. His outrageous stubbornness to establish a balanced offense and actually allow the Bears to play to their strengths (running the ball) put a ton of pressure on Cutler, leading him to force throws way more often than he should have. There will also be no more seven-step-drops, so the sack/rush/hurry numbers will undoubtedly go down.

Just having Marshall on the field completely changes the way defenses will have to game plan for us. Plus, the Bears did themselves justice by going out and signing Michael Bush, the former Oakland Raiders running back. He’s a straight beast inside the 5-yard line, something Matt Forte certainly can’t consider himself thus far. Adding these guys will only take the pressure off of Cutler and Forte to carry the load. Marshall will help stretch the field and open up opportunities for other guys to make plays. With extra weapons and more time in the pocket without Martz calling the shots, there will be less forced throws, so Cutler’s decision-making, particularly in the red zone, should (hopefully) improve (he ranked next-to-last in bad decision rating in 2011). No more holding our breath, praying our below-average receivers run the correct routes and make the plays that NFL receivers are supposed to make. If Alshon Jeffery lives up to his potential (put up 88-1517-9 during his sophomore season with South Carolina), the Bears could own one of the scariest offenses in the NFL. Consider this stat that Peter King came up with in yesterday’s Monday Morning Quarterback:

The Chicago Bears could field the tallest set of receivers in club history — and, in fact, one of the tallest ever to take the field — this year, depending on the play-calling whimsy of offensive coordinator Mike Tice.

If the Bears line up in a five-receiver set, with two tight ends and three wide receivers, here’s how they could threaten the opposition:

At wideout: The 6-4½ Brandon Marshall and 6-3 rookie Alshon Jeffery could line up split out, with 6-0 Earl Bennett or 5-11 Dane Sanzenbacher the third receiver; Sanzenbacher is more suited to play inside. This is dependent, too, on the recovery of 5-11 Johnny Knox from a severe late-2011 back injury.

At tight end: Returning are 6-7 Matt Spaeth and 6-6½ Kellen Davis, who could be used as sixth, or sixth and seventh linemen to buttress a shaky line. And fourth-round pick Evan Rodriguez, an athletic 6-2 tight end, could get some playing time if he proves his worth as a receiver too.

Conjures memories of the Chargers two years ago, when they could send three receivers 6-4 or taller downfield — Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd and tight end Antonio Gates — with the 6-2 Legedu Naanee in reserve.

That’s pretty incredible to think about. Provided Cutler and Marshall don’t skip a beat, Mike Tice patches up the offensive line, and Forte’s knee heals up, the Bears offense will finally be able to keep the defense off the field longer and may very well turn itself into a juggernaut.

Only 2.5 months ’til training camp. CAN’T WAIT!

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