Greenberg: Matt Forte knows how much a good NFL running back is worth

Just before training camp opened in 2011, Matt Forte had a choice to make. Sign a lowball contract offer or bet on himself after three stellar years as the Bears’ all-purpose running back.

“I went into camp with Jerry Angelo as the GM and he’s telling me, ‘Hey, in good faith, we’re gonna negotiate a deal and do all that,’” Forte said recently. “But basically, they were trying to get me for cheap, (like) I didn’t know my value. Their leverage was, well, you sign this below-your-actual-production-level deal or you have to play the deal out as a rookie.”

It wasn’t a hard decision for Forte.

“I wasn’t going to sign a bad deal for under my worth,” he said.

And thus began the “Pay Forte” season of 2011. As you might recall, in the opener that year, Forte compiled 158 all-purpose yards in a decisive win over the Atlanta Falcons. He turned a screen pass into a 56-yard touchdown, he juked Dunta Robinson out of his shoes on a long run. It was vintage Forte while he was still in his prime.

“It was like everybody (sitting behind the) end zone had ‘Pay Forte’ t-shirts on, and I scored and literally froze,” he said. “I did the Michael Jordan. Like, what else what do you want me to do?”

If Jay Cutler was polarizing, Forte was universally admired, by fans and his teammates. After that game, they advocated for him.

“Pay the man,” receiver Roy Williams said in the locker room. “Pay the man.”

In 2011, Forte was leading the NFL in all-purpose yards through 12 games when he went down with a right knee sprain. He tried to return but missed the last four games of the season, the first ones he missed in his career, but he still finished with 1,487 yards from scrimmage, which was the 10th-best total in the league.

Forte wouldn’t get paid until just before training camp opened in 2012. And he was ready to make a contractual stand after getting franchise-tagged and before he got a four-year, $30.4 million deal done with the new Bears GM Phil Emery.

“I was ready to go the distance,” he said.

Matt Forte carved out an impressive Bears career in his eight years there, finishing behind only Walter Payton among the Bears’ all-time leaders in yards from scrimmage. (Dennis Wierzbicki / USA Today)

I took Forte on this trip down memory lane because of Saquon Barkley and the vocal uprising from running backs about their declining worth and uncertain standing in today’s NFL, which values quarterbacks and receivers, left tackles, defensive backs and pass rushers.

Running backs are treated as disposable commodities. Their value is at its highest before they’re able to negotiate a contract. And they only get one shot to really make it count.

It’s nothing that Forte didn’t deal with over a decade ago.

So, I wanted to know, what would Forte do if he were in Barkley’s shoes? Retirement can make athletes see the present with green-tinged glasses. But Forte hasn’t changed much at all since retiring in 2017.

He wouldn’t have advised Barkley to take a one-year deal for $11 million, that’s for sure.

“Saquon, in my opinion, I think he should have stayed under the franchise tag and just not played and do what my buddy Ryan Clark says, you do a ‘hold-in,’” Forte said. “Because for him to get $11 million on a one-year deal, and then he plays under that contract and gets injured, you know, the team is liable to cut you the next year, because you’re not healthy, or the year after that once you get healthy. ‘Oh, he’s not the same player, you know, we’re gonna get rid of him.’

“And so if you (get) the franchise tag and you go into the building, you can lift weights and you practice with the team and stuff. And on game day, I just wouldn’t play. And, you know, they can say what they want, the media, they (might) want to bash the player, but you have to use that as a business tactic. Because the team treats it as a business. You have got to treat your body and your career as a business as well. And so that’s the only leverage you have.”

Barkley, who had knee surgery in 2020, agreed in theory and talked about sitting out the entire year before camp but he told reporters he had an “epiphany” and decided to play it out, despite being unhappy with the contract he was offered and the one-year deal he decided to take. He’s coming off a season in which he played 16 games and compiled 1,650 yards from scrimmage.

“What’s the best thing that I can do … sit out or sit in. I feel like for this year specifically the best thing I can do for myself would be coming back, going out there playing the game I love,” he said.

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Saquon Barkley agreed to a one-year deal to end a stalemate with the Giants, saying he felt the best thing to do was to come back, even on a below-market contract. (Rich Barnes / USA Today)

Barkley added, “The value of the running back continues going down. The only way that I feel like … that’s going to change? Someone’s got to make it change. God-willing, hopefully, I can be the one to make it do it.”

Forte’s advice for young running backs is know your worth and don’t be afraid to play rough when it comes to your money.

“You hustle and you play your hardest to get to that second contract,” Forte said. “And if they franchise you, you use that leverage. You sign a franchise deal and you sit out. So they pay you $10 million, $12 million for zero production. And I bet you they’ll stop franchising guys.”

Maybe. It’s a long wait until the next CBA, so if running backs want to see a change, they’re going to have to do something, right?

And as for the state of running backs in the NFL, don’t get Forte started on the disrespect. The way Forte sees it, everyone loves a reliable running back, the guys who can run, catch and block in any system … until it’s contract time.

“That ‘passing league’ crap, it sounds nice,” he said. “People use it, you know, not really knowing what that term, even means. The running back, I think, it’s so valuable, because when you have a young quarterback who’s trying to be developed, or even a veteran quarterback, they can take lot of pressure, whether it be from the blitz or from them being inexperienced, and the running back position helps them. And that comes from running the ball, from screen plays, to mismatches to being involved in the passing game.”

His versatility, and reliability, was why Forte was so valuable, regardless of which offensive coordinator he played under. Not everyone can be like him, though. He stayed healthy for most of his career, but he also played through injuries that would’ve knocked out other players. Even after he got that second deal, he rarely missed a game.

Unlike Barkley, who was drafted second overall in 2018 and signed a four-year rookie deal for more than $31 million, Forte was a second-round draft pick 10 years earlier, so he didn’t get a big payday coming out of Tulane. After going to the Bears with the 44th pick of the draft, he got a little under $3.8 million over four years.

And as he likes to say, he played that fourth year almost for free.

“Honestly, the Bears got an extra year out of me,” he said. “It was a major discount because it was the last year of my rookie deal. I’m making league minimum for a rookie. But the punter is making $3 million and I’m leading the league in rushing.”

Actually, Adam Podlesh was on the books for $4.5 million that season, including his signing bonus.



The pay disparity for NFL running backs is as wrong as it is wide

Forte sat in on some contract meetings with agent Adisa Bakari, Angelo and Emery because he wanted to participate in the conversation about his own future. All these years later, he is still in disbelief that Angelo’s argument on lowballing him in 2011 was that he hadn’t made a Pro Bowl. A Pro Bowl!

“That was just such an obnoxious comeback to me, because it had no validity,” he said.

Funny enough, though, while he missed the end of the 2011 season, Forte did get healthy in time for that season’s Pro Bowl in Hawaii.

In May 2012, two months before he signed the deal, a Bears source told a Chicago Tribune writer that they were worried about the condition of Forte’s knee, which was operated on in college. Forte can chuckle about it being a negotiating tactic now, but he wasn’t laughing about it then.

Forte was happy enough with the deal he signed — he called it generational money — but he let Emery know he was getting all of the money, including the game day-roster incentives at the end of it.

“So I said, ‘OK, I’m gonna sign it,’” Forte said. “But just so you know, even if my leg is broken, I’m going to dress out and go out there for the game and get that bonus check. He said OK. Luckily, I was blessed to not have a ton of injuries.”

He missed one game in 2012, played all 16 the next two seasons and 13 games in 2015. He missed just seven games due to injury in eight years and outlasted the two GMs he haggled with.

Forte, who played his final two years with the New York Jets, finished his career as the second-leading rusher in Bears history with 8,602 yards (well behind Walter Payton’s 16,726) and he’s still the team’s seventh-leading receiver with 4,116 yards. Forte ranks third all-time in total touchdowns with 64.

Essentially, there’s Walter Payton, Gale Sayers and Matt Forte. Not a bad legacy.

But, as the old heads in the NFL know, legacy doesn’t always mean money in the bank. That’s why Forte fought for himself as a player and he hopes the running backs of the present and future do even more.

“You bet,” he said, “on yourself.”



Saquon Barkley’s new contract reveals RB couldn’t stomach holdout, PR battle with Giants

(Photo: Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)

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