When the Bears start a voluntary off-season program this week, they will likely be forced to do it without the participation of their biggest offensive weapon.
Though he's been given the franchise tag, Matt Forte does not have a signed tender or long-term contract with the Bears. Without a contract, he can't participate. It's not a holdout, but it is a clear line in the sand between the Pro Bowl running back and his team.
Bears general manager Phil Emery has characterized the negotiations as ongoing, but there have been no signs from Halas Hall that Forte will have a signed deal any time soon. The last word from Forte was a petulant rant on Twitter right after the team signed Michael Bush to be his back-up. Forte complained about the Bears bringing in another running back while they still haven't come to terms with him, but his stance came off as downright whiny because it overlooked the fact that he has had a strong back-up every year he has played in Chicago.
At this point, it's hard to believe the Bears still haven't given Forte a fair offer. This isn't the team of old, who kept their purse strings as tightly laced as a wide receiver's uniform pant. Between the collective bargaining agreement that ensures the Bears spend a certain amount and the fact they've opened the checkbook to other great players, the Bears have likely made given Forte a fair contract offer.
The "Pay Forte" movement started last year, when Chicago Bears fans wanted to see Forte get paid for the services he was giving the team. Despite being their most reliable yard-gainer in his four seasons in Chicago, Forte toiled away under a rookie contract. Now, with the franchise tag, he's been given a $7.1 million raise. Without a long-term contract, he won't be among the league's highest paid running backs, but he also won't be grossly underpaid. If he doesn't sign a contract soon and join the workouts with his teammates, it will be hard to still feel sympathy for him.