15 Years Ago the Vikings Changed NFL Free Agency

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Back in 2006, the Minnesota Vikings needed a guard and decided to bully the Seattle Seahawks in order to get one. This was before the Seahawks were the Seahawks, mind you. Sure, they were coming off of an appearance in Super Bowl XL. But it was just that, an appearance. The Pittsburgh Steelers had beaten them soundly, 21-10.

Before that season, Seattle’s last playoff win was in 1984. But they were building something. They had hired Mike Holmgren and had made the playoffs in the past two seasons. Shaun Alexander had an MVP season and veteran Matt Hasselbeck was behind center, but it was a line that featured Hall of Fame offensive tackle Walter Jones, Floyd Womack, (aka Pork Chop), and Steve Hutchinson.

Seattle used the transition tag on Hutchinson that offseason. He was allowed to test free agency, but the Seahawks would be allowed to match any offer he got. A Vikings front office that featured Rick Spielman as co-general manager and Rob Brzezinski saw an opportunity to wrestle Hutchinson away and changed free agency forever.

Minnesota was in detox mode following the Mike Tice era. There had been the Love Boat and the Whizzinator, and Tice had dabbled in scalping. Randy Moss had been exiled to Oakland. But the Wilfs had bought the team from Red McCombs and were set on changing the culture. Brad Childress was installed as head coach, and there was a foundation in place.

Spielman was sharing GM duties with Fran Foley and eventually would take over in May of 2006. Brzezinski had been in the front office since 1999. Childress had an impressive coaching staff: Mike Tomlin was his defensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy coached the running backs, and Kevin Stefanski was one of his assistants.

The Vikings defense was loaded, featuring Antoine Winfield and Darren Sharper in the secondary, E.J. Henderson and Ben Leber as the linebackers, and Pat Williams and Kevin Williams on the line. But an offense that featured a 38-year-old Brad Johnson, Chester Taylor, and Troy Williamson wasn’t holding up their end. The front office decided they’d start in the trenches and land a guard to complement an offensive line that featured Matt Birk and Bryant McKinnie.

The collective-bargaining agreement between the league and its player’s union is full of spells and arcane language. The salary cap is a myth and contracts can be made to disappear at any moment. But what the Vikings front office did to land Hutchinson was brilliant in its simplicity.

Jones had just signed a seven-year deal with Seattle for over $50 million, and they were coming off a Super Bowl season, so they didn’t have a lot of cap space. Every football team values flexibility, and the Vikings knew that Seattle wouldn’t want to offer Hutchinson a fully guaranteed contract, no matter what they thought of him.

Their solution? In their offer to Hutchinson, they wrote that if he wasn’t the highest-paid offensive lineman on the team, they’d guarantee the contract. Seattle couldn’t match it because of Jones’ contract, and the Vikings didn’t have an offensive lineman making more than $49 million.

They had created a “poison pill.”

The Seahawks filed a grievance with the league and lost. Hutchinson arrived in Minnesota, a year later Adrian Peterson was drafted, and, well, Brett Favre threw across his body, Williamson threatened to fight Childress at midfield, and Randy Moss returned and threatened a caterer. Minnesota sports. But hey, it was better than Onterrio Smith brewing up synthetic urine or Fred Smoot defiling the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

Like a petulant younger brother, Seattle sought revenge and signed Nate Burleson to an, ahem, seven-year, $49 million contract that would become fully guaranteed if he played more than five games in the state of Minnesota. But while Hutchinson would make four Pro Bowls with the Vikings and remained with the team until 2011, Burleson never topped the 1,006 yards he had in his second of his four seasons with Seattle and finished his career with the Detroit Lions.

Hutchinson was a perennial Pro Bowler; Burleson was a good receiver who became a star on Good Morning Football.

In 2011 the NFL and the players union signed a new CBA, and it contained language preventing the poison pill. The Seahawks built the Legion of Boom, Russell Wilson became a star quarterback, and they would go on to become one of the premier teams in the league.

The Vikings? Well, they have a strange relationship with Seattle. As in they can’t beat them.

It’s not like the regional rivalry with the Green Bay Packers. They’re not hated like the New Orleans Saints. It’s just a sad state of affairs. They haven’t beat them since 2009 and haven’t won in Seattle since, um, 2006. There’s been the Shank at the Bank, the 21-7 loss that cost John DeFilippo his job, and 4th and inches this year.

Fifteen years later, the Vikings are still trying to becoming an elite team. Outside of the 2017 season, they’ve hovered around .500 and have struggled in primetime. But there’s a good core in place and indicators in the past two seasons that they may be breaking through in nationally televised games. Right now they’re trying to round out a roster that should have performed better last year.

Spielman is still the GM. Brzezinski is still the cap guy. And yeah, they really could use a guard right now. Maybe, just maybe, they have one more trick up their sleeves.

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