After almost a month of anticipation and wonderment on his status as a free agent, Steve Hutchinson now knows he'll be playing for the Minnesota Vikings, but he spent much of the time on his conference call with reporters Tuesday trying to explain his intentions and diffuse controversy.
Hutchinson opened his conference call by thanking the Seattle Seahawks for the past five years, but after talking about that and looking forward to playing in Minnesota, Hutchinson made a point to try and clear the air about rumors floating around that he didn't want to return to Seattle. Speculation was that Hutchinson's agent, Tom Condon, put a clause in Minnesota's offer sheet to be the team's highest-paid offensive lineman or have the contract guaranteed because they knew Seattle wouldn't be likely to match that portion with tackle Walter Jones averaging about $500,000 more per year.
"There has been a pretty big deal written about this deal over the past week or so. With none of the parties involved providing information or releasing it to the press, I'm a little confused on how there was so many he said, she said articles written," Hutchinson said. "The truth of the matter is I wanted to have a contract extension done before last season, certainly before the tag deadline. The Seahawks were either unwilling or unwanting to give me that contract and Minnesota stepped up to the plate and offered it to me."
According to some of the speculation, Hutchinson might have been put off that Seattle gave him only the transition tag and didn't extend his contract last year. Condon seemed to confirm as much Monday to the Associated Press.
"I don't know that this sets a precedent," Condon said of the clause stipulating Hutchinson be the highest paid lineman or have the contract guaranteed. "Sometimes, a player transcends the position of a transition tag by being an exceptional player."
Now it would seem that teams would think twice about applying a transition tag instead of a franchise tag. While the transition tag requires the average of the top-10 salaries at a given position, the franchise tag requires more compensation — the average of the top-five salaries at the position. However, a franchise tag requires compensation in draft picks while the transition tag does not.
Of course, Seattle was probably fully expecting to be able to match any offer sheet he received and didn't anticipate the controversial clause. But that's what can happen when create minds like Condon and Vikings vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski have common goals.
"We identified Steve as our No. 1 guy entering free agency, and he was at a position of need on the team. He solidifies our line and is a key to our philosophy that the offensive and defensive lines are paramount to the success of the team," said Vikings vice president of personnel Fran Foley. "It's not often that you can get a player of Steve's caliber in free agency, and we're excited about the leadership and professionalism he will bring to our team."
But it was that clause about being the highest paid offensive lineman on his team that created controversy.
"I wasn't really anticipating it to be as big of a controversy," Hutchinson said. "Quite frankly, I really didn't think about it that way. I saw it as an opportunity to sign a contract for my family and I did that. I knew about the clause. I knew it would be hard for Seattle to match, but again, I did what I thought was best for me and my family."
Hutchinson said he was prepared to sign an extension with Seattle more than a year ago, but since nothing got done he was ready to test the market.
"The Seahawks approached me about a year ago, last February, and they said they kind of wanted to do something right after the draft," he said. "They wanted to get something together after the draft. I said ‘Great.' I wanted to get something done before the season started because I wanted to be able to concentrate on the season and there wasn't really any real communication or real negotiations that took place before the season started. That was the end of that."
He later added: "I thought (the Seahawks) really didn't pursue me as hard as I thought they would. Then we got to the tag deadline and before the tag deadline I was assuming that, well, maybe they are just going to franchise me and that didn't happen. When you are pretty sure that some things are going to happen and then they don't, it makes you wonder if maybe they wanted to go a different route or what. It worked out."
It almost didn't. When Seattle restructured Jones' contract to add another voidable year and thereby lower his average annual salary below what Hutchinson is scheduled to make, there was a chance Seattle would be allowed to match the terms of the offer without guaranteeing the contract. However, an arbiter ruled Monday afternoon that the Jones maneuver came too late, that Hutchinson needed to be the highest-paid lineman on the team at the time his offer sheet was signed. If the Seahawks were going to match the offer, they would have been required to guaranteed Hutchinson's entire $49 million. Because of the risk of injury to football players, that would have been a risky move when it comes to managing the salary cap.
Jones' restructuring resulted in more conjecture that Hutchinson might have a problem with Jones standing between Hutchinson and his freedom. Hutchinson dismissed that controversy as well.
"Players are going to be happy for players. I'm assuming when Walt restructured, I think I heard somewhere that some of his roster bonus was guaranteed or something, and that's how they restructured Walt's," Hutchinson said. "If he got some of his money now, that's great for Walt. … Those guys that I played next to for five years, we're always going to be friends. We're going to want the best for each other. With Walt, if he helped himself out as well as tried to help the situation, then that's great."
So Hutchinson, an All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler, now joins fellow Pro Bowl players Matt Birk and Koren Robinson.
"I was fortunate to spend the last couple years in Hawaii with Matt Birk, so I got to hang out with him a little bit and got to know him," Hutchinson said. "I played with Koren in Seattle, as you well know. I think this team is going in the right direction with a new coach and a staff that wants to do things the right way."
It puts a cap on a frenzied few weeks between the delay of free agency, the new collective bargaining agreement and the whole offer-sheet controversy.
"You're just kind of chomping at the bit to kind of get something going. Free agency was moved back and of course I didn't really know what teams were going to be interested that week. Then when I got the call, free agency started at about midnight Eastern Time on that Friday night last week, and I talked to the Minnesota guys and then flew in and we did the deal. It really kind of made it even more hectic. I didn't think it could even be any more of a waiting game than it was the week before, but, believe me, it was kind of a hectic week. You really can't put a finger on it. It was just kind of an off week for everybody."
Hutchinson Tries to Leave Controversy Behind
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