Sports

Memo to Chicago Bears: Don't Pay Matt Forte

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Well, actually, do pay him, just don't pay him the kind of guaranteed money he's looking for. On one hand, Forte is having a career season as the epicenter of the Bears offense. On the other hand, he’ll be a 26-year old running back next season.

CJ2k, or CJ0.7k as he might be better known after this season, has highlighted the folly of handing over 10% of a team’s cap space to single RB. That’s just too many eggs in one basket for a position that simply does not drive wins and losses except in rare instances.

Forte is 2nd so far this year in WPA/G, 6th in EPA per play, and 18th in SR. He’s averaging 5.4 YPC, which ties for 6th in the league for qualifying RBs. We all agree that’s really good. The question is whether the Bears are better off locking him up for 6 years and $20 million guaranteed or spending that money elsewhere.

We don’t need to look at Chris Johnson or DeAngelo Williams to see the danger of giving huge guaranteed contracts to RBs. We only have to look at Forte himself. As we’ve seen with several RBs, they can go from thermonuclear hot one year to cold as a fish the next, even without injuries or switching teams, and Forte is no exception.

Forte went from one of the top performing RBs in 2008 to one of the worst in 2009. He then had a mediocre year in 2010, the year CHI made it to the NFC Championship Game. And now he’s back on top in 2011. Forte already had a Chris-Johnson-in-2011-like season in ’09, and there’s no reason he won’t do it again. In ’09, Forte gained 905 yards on 252 carries for a 3.6 YPC. He fumbled 6 times. He was dead last in qualifying RBs (59th) in total WPA with -1.24 and was second to last in total EPA.

I know what you’re saying. The team around him was bad. His offensive line played awful. They didn’t “use him right.” He had some bad fumble luck. But that’s exactly my point. RB performance is highly variable and greatly dependent on offensive lines.

In the NFL, pay is only logical as an inducement to future expected performance, not as a reward for past accomplishments. His future performance is hard to predict mostly because it’s so dependent on the team around him (which is my point). But if we look at his career average as an indication, he averages 0.01 WPA/G and -0.01 EPA/P with a 39% SR. In the context of 2011, those numbers would be 27th in WPA/G, 34th in EPA/P, and 33rd in SR. His career SR and YPC numbers are exactly league-average. Is that worth $20 million guaranteed?

In fairness, Adrian Peterson’s career averages would put him in similar company, and Chris Johnson’s career numbers would put him solidly in the bottom half of the league.

The Bears would be much better off franchise-tagging Forte over the next two seasons and then moving on with a younger, cheaper back. That might seem unfair, but Forte still pockets millions of dollars, and with any luck will make a few million more down the road. Some might argue that there is value in "keeping him happy," but I'm not so sure there is an reliable link between large guaranteed contracts and future performance. Just ask the Titans.