In religious circles, Good Friday isn't until April 9, 2004. In Vikings circles, March 5 was Great Friday, the day they made the biggest free-agent signing in franchise history.
It was the biggest deal — $35 million over six years with a $10.8 million bonus — but it was also a signing that had two people in the Vikings' personnel department giddy when talking about why they like cornerback Antoine Winfield so much.
Paul Wiggin is the team's director of pro scouting. Jeff Robinson is the coordinator of pro personnel and the man responsible for studying the defensive backs the hardest. Between the two, probably no one in Minnesota has seen more video of Winfield. And between the two, it's hard to come by loftier praise of Winfield.
"For us, this is the biggest signing really. At times we have kept the players we wanted. We knew what it was going to take," Wiggin said. "We studied the defensive backs situation and we could see how the franchising process was going to take most of them away. We decided through what we heard and read that he was going to set the market because he was a top-tier guy.
"He had all the intangibles that you'd want in a player — he's a leader, great locker room guy, researcher, he's smart, he's class. The one limitation is that you'd want that guy to be a little bit taller (Winfield is 5-foot-9). But if you wanted Champ Bailey, you'd have to get Champ Bailey. We knew everything about this guy. We researched every possible avenue. The other thing was he fit personality-wise with what we're tying to get done here, and that was really a push for us."
While the Vikings floated a few other names they might be interested in — Philadelphia's Troy Vincent for one — once free agency hit and they knew who was available, they made a concerted effort for Winfield.
"This was the one defensive back we wanted. He wasn't one of the three. He was the one, just like 31 other teams wanted," Wiggin said. "That's why we feel good about it. We did the right things to get the right guy. Most often when you do that, because you're competing with such a large market, it's like winning the lottery."
The Vikings are paying Winfield $35 million, yet they feel like they won the lottery.
When Wiggin signed with the Cleveland Browns in 1957, he said he started at $500 and finished at $27,500 as a Pro Bowl player and captain of the team 10 years later. He's seen the change in going after players, from private jets to limousines to fine wining and dining.
"This was unheard of," he said of everything the Vikings did to get Winfield. "But that's where it is, that where the evolution of the game has taken itself. It's gone to such a high level."
A high level is exactly where the personnel guys see Winfield's ability. He's is almost portrayed as a player without a weakness.
"It's the whole package. You start with his athletic ability, his toughness and his will to win. You put that with his character, which is a high-character guy — bright, engaging, studious. You put all that together and that's a winner. The guy has always won," Robinson said. "People say, ‘He's small, he's small, he's small.' But he's always won being small. That's all he knows. So when you look at all those things and you line him up and say, ‘What can he do? What can't he do?' There's nothing that he can't do.
"A lot of those guys (in free agency) you'd say are good players, but they're not good-character guys. You can't say that about this guy. There are other guys who think they're good and they've got potential still, but (Winfield) has already proven himself. When you look at all those factors — and he wasn't a left corner or right corner — he's done it all, covered the slots and he's blitzed. When you consider what he does on the field and his character overall, it just says win. What more can you ask for from a guy that's a talent and a student of the game and role model in the community? What more do you want realistically?"
Winfield has established a well-deserved reputation as a great tackler from the cornerback spot. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2000, he has averaged 89 tackles a season, more than any cornerback for the Vikings last season and the same number of tackles Corey Chavous had in 2002 when he split time between cornerback and safety.
But Winfield's tackles aren't just coming after a receiver catches a pass behind him.
"He blitzes, he comes up the field on the run, where those (other corners on the market) don't cover the run," Robinson said. "When you talk about Champ, you don't say he's going to hit you, you say he's going to cover you all day long. This guy (Winfield) will knock you out. If you look at our team right now, with him on it, he's either one or two right now for being the best tackler we've got. He was the best tackler they had in Buffalo."
Besides his height, the other criticism on Winfield has been his lack of interceptions. Why only six interceptions over five years?
Wiggin referenced San Francisco Hall of Fame defensive back Jimmy Johnson, who was named to the Pro Bowl five times from 1969 to 1974.
"That's the best defensive back I've ever been around, because I coached there. I don't care what anybody says," Wiggin said. "(He had) the same kind of statistics (as Winfield) because they don't throw there. First of all, when you go to throw there it doesn't look good. So you go to an alternate route. Secondly, you design not to go there.""
Robinson's assessment of Winfield's interceptions was nearly identical.
"He didn't get interceptions because people don't throw the ball to him. That's why he doesn't get interceptions," Robinson said. "If you've got a choice between him and the other guy, go to the other guy. Your odds are better. That's why his numbers are low."
So it's time for Brian Williams to step it up and be ready for more balls thrown his way on the other side of the field.
"He's doing that," Robinson said. "So it's the perfect scenario. This guy will line up anywhere. (Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell) put him in a lot of different spots when he had him (in Buffalo), and they carried that over with the new coach they had. The guy just makes plays. People say he doesn't have a lot of picks, but he's returned punts before, so it's not like he doesn't have good hands. At the same time, you can't pick it if they don't throw it."
Wiggin also believes the addition of Winfield will increase the chances for safeties Brian Russell and Corey Chavous to add to their league-leading combined interception total from last year.
"This just gives this organization a whole new set of energy," Wiggin said. "When your energy changes and your belief changes, generally you've got something."
The Vikings believe they got the only the cornerback on the free-agent market they really wanted.
Personnel Guys Gush Over Winfield
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