Matt Forte Gets Franchise Tag From Bears

Forte sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee early in a loss to Kansas City on Dec. 4 and sat out the rest of the season.

Without Forte and quarterback Jay Cutler, the Bears struggled down the stretch and finished third in the NFC North and missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record.

Forte still got selected to his first Pro Bowl, finishing with 1,487 yards from scrimmage and 997 rushing in his fourth season. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry. Forte was the first Chicago running back to make it to the Pro Bowl since Neal Anderson following the 1991 season.

Forte came into last season looking for an extension, but did not reach an agreement with the Bears.

Forte was reportedly offered a deal that guaranteed about $13 million or $14 million, but might have been looking for something closer to the five-year, $43 million contract with $21 million guaranteed that Carolina gave DeAngelo Williams.

“Matt is an important part of our football team and we chose to utilize the franchise tag to ensure he remains a Bear,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said. “We believe in Matt as a player and a person. Our intention is to continue to work to find common ground and keep Matt as a member of the Chicago Bears in 2012 and beyond.”

Bears Beat Vikings 17-13 Despite Allen’s Rush

In the end, the Bears had a feel-good-yet-painful victory to stop their five-game losing streak. Allen and the Vikings were left with another near-miss.

Charles Tillman’s interception return in the second quarter gave the Bears the lead for good on Sunday, and they held on to beat the Vikings 17-13 despite Allen getting 3½ of Minnesota’s seven sacks and a late injury to Brian Urlacher, the soul of Chicago’s defense.

“This was one of the most fun games I’ve played in,” Allen said.

Allen finished the season with 22 sacks, just behind Michael Strahan’s mark of 22½ for the New York Giants in 2001.

The Vikings held the Bears to a season-low 209 total yards and forced three turnovers but still managed to lose, a fitting finish to this forgettable season.

Joe Webb relieved Christian Ponder at quarterback for the Vikings (3-13) for the third time in the last month, but the scrambling Webb wasn’t able to keep the Vikings from matching their worst record in franchise history, set first in 1984. The Vikings claimed the third pick in next year’s draft after going 0-6 in the NFC North, the first time in their 51 years they’ve failed to win a division game.

The Bears (8-8) were left to wonder all winter what could’ve been had quarterback Jay Cutler not broken his thumb and running back Matt Forte not sprained his knee. Josh McCown fared far better over the last two weeks than Cutler’s first fill-in, Caleb Hanie, but the Bears still missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

“I definitely think he can hold his head up. He came here and helped our football team. He gave us a spark,” said coach Lovie Smith.

Smith said Urlacher sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, which bent awkwardly in the end zone while he helped break up a pass in the fourth quarter. Urlacher was able to walk off the field without assistance, but he was in enough pain initially that he briefly covered his face with his hand. Smith acknowledged he’s concerned about Urlacher, but also noted his recuperative history.

“He heals a little bit quicker than most people, so he should be OK,” Smith said.

But will be the Bears be all right next season?

“We’re a good football team and we’re going to try and keep as many of our coaches and players together as possible,” Smith said. “We don’t want to tear this team down and start over or anything like that. This is a good football team, and we’re going to win a lot of games with this core remaining the same.”

Despite having Allen in his face all day, the defensive end blowing by left tackle J’Marcus Webb often until the tight ends started to help, McCown finished 15 for 25 for 160 yards and a second-quarter touchdown to Roy Williams with one interception.

“We’ve had some ups and downs, but to finish the year off and start the year off with a win to push us into this year is something special. I think we will come back next year and win more than eight games. I can promise you that,” Williams said.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier didn’t make the same promise, but he expressed the same confidence. Frazier hasn’t expressed any concern about his job status, even raving earlier in the week about how supportive team owners have been.

“We’ll have a meeting after the season … but the meeting will be about how not to be 3-13 in 2012,” Frazier said. “We have to be a lot better.”

Ponder went 4 for 10 for 28 yards before aggravating a hip pointer he sustained a month ago. Webb, who rallied the Vikings to victory last week at Washington and brought them within 1 yard of a win at Detroit on Dec. 11, went 17 for 32 for 200 yards. He netted only 2 yards on four rushes.

The Vikings had their share of gaffes familiar to this at-times-woeful season. Most notable was Ponder’s 13th interception, a poorly thrown pass behind Toby Gerhart that bounced off the running back’s hands and into the arms of Tillman for an untouched 22-yard return. That was the third pick six in the last five games against Ponder, the first-round draft pick who took over as the starter for the seventh game of the season.

“It stinks that the season played out the way it did, but I think it’s a building block to improve upon next year,” Ponder said.

Notes: That was Tillman’s fifth career interception return for a TD, the most in Bears history. Mike Brown and Bennie McRae had four each. … Gerhart had 67 yards on 15 rushes for the Vikings before spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the third quarter. … The Vikings finished with 50 sacks, the third-most in team history. They had 71 in 1989 and 51 in 1992. … Devin Hester has four career return TDs against the Vikings, but he averaged just 2.0 yards on two punt returns and 11.0 yards on two kickoff returns. … The Bears have won five straight in this series, their longest streak against the Vikings since winning six in a row from 1983-86.

Bears Place Cutler, Forte on IR

The moves on Tuesday were hardly surprising given Chicago’s recent struggles. The Bears (7-8) have lost five straight since Cutler broke his right thumb late in a win over San Diego on Nov. 20, and things took another bad turn two weeks later when Forte sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee against Kansas City.

Cutler, who was scheduled to have surgically inserted pins removed Tuesday, threw for 2,319 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Forte finished with 997 yards rushing and 490 receiving.

The Bears elevated defensive tackle Jordan Miller from the practice squad and signed guard Mansfield Wrotto.

Cutler’s injury sent Chicago into a tailspin, knocking out of contention a team that appeared on its way to the playoffs after last year’s run to the NFC title game. The Bears were mathematically eliminated with a loss at Green Bay on Sunday, but they probably weren’t going to make it by the time they arrived at Lambeau Field.

One reason for that was the lack of a reliable backup quarterback.

Chicago put in a waiver claim on Kyle Orton after Cutler went down, but Kansas City had priority and got him. The Bears wound up signing Josh McCown, who was coaching quarterbacks at a North Carolina high school, and passed on going after Donovan McNabb after Minnesota let him go.

Meanwhile, backup Caleb Hanie struggled in a big way and went 0-4 as the starter. McCown got the nod against the Packers and performed better, throwing for 242 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in his first NFL appearance since 2009, but the Bears saw their playoff hopes vanish in a 35-21 loss.

A healthy Forte might have made a difference, but his season ended when he took a hit to the knee against Kansas City. It didn’t help that backup Marion Barber committed costly mistakes in losses to the Chiefs and Denver the following week.

He had a touchdown catch in a 10-3 loss to Kansas City called off because he lined up illegally, forcing Chicago to settle for a field goal, and things only got worse for him the following week. Barber got pushed out of bounds on a run near the end of regulation, helping give Denver enough time to tie the game. In overtime, his fumble led to the winning field goal.