Vikings, at last, snare All-Pro guard
An arbitrator's ruling forced Seattle to match all of the Vikings' offer sheet if they wanted to keep Hutchinson. They didn't.
Kevin Seifert, Star Tribune
Last update: March 21, 2006 – 12:38 AM
Steve Hutchinson of the Seattle Seahawks is the focus of an unprecedented contract offer from the Minnesota Vikings.
Eight days of unprecedented debate left the Vikings with the prize they had been seeking all along. All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson joined the team at 11:01 p.m. Monday when the Seattle Seahawks failed to match a seven-year, $49 million offer sheet he signed March 12.
The Seahawks confirmed the decision late Monday night, the Associated Press reported. Hutchinson's agent, Tom Condon, told the Associated Press the Seahawks never contacted him about possibly matching the offer after Hutchinson signed the unprecedented offer sheet on March 12.
Special master Stephen Burbank upheld the contract's original language, meaning Seattle would have had to guarantee the entire deal if it matched. Such a move would have been unparalleled in NFL history.
As is, Hutchinson will receive $16 million in guaranteed money from the Vikings, a league record for a guard.
Ultimately, Burbank would not allow the Seahawks to rewrite a so-called "poison-pill" clause to reflect a recent contract adjustment Seattle made for left tackle Walter Jones.
Following the ruling, an NFL Players Association attorney declared victory for the Vikings.
"The Vikings have the player unless Seattle guarantees the contract," said Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel. Berthelsen represented Hutchinson and the Vikings.
"This hearing really was a shot in the dark for Seattle," he added. "And I think the special master agreed."
Monday's hearing centered on a highly unusual clause of the contract, one that called for the entire deal to be guaranteed if Hutchinson's $7 million average annual salary was not the highest on his team for offensive linemen in 2006. The clause did not impact the Vikings, whose highest-paid lineman is center Matt Birk (about $4.2 million).
Instead, it was a direct attempt to prevent the Seahawks from matching, as was their right after naming Hutchinson their transition player last month. Hutchinson, agent Tom Condon and the Vikings all knew that Seattle left tackle Walter Jones was receiving an average of $7.5 million per season on a seven-year contract.
The Seahawks' thinking became clear during Monday's hearing in front of Burbank, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania: Seattle officials revealed they had restructured Jones' contract to lower his annual average below Hutchinson's.
By adding a voidable eighth year to Jones' contract (with a paltry $1 million base salary), the Seahawks brought Jones' annual average to $6.68 million and seemingly removed the Seahawks' obligation to guarantee the contract.
But the change was moot. Condon and the Vikings made sure the clause spanned from the time the offer sheet was signed (March 12) to the end of the 2006 league year in March 2007.
The Seahawks restructured Jones' contract late last week, after Hutchinson signed the offer sheet.
Said Berthelsen: "The clause clearly states that the contract is guaranteed if the player is not the highest-paid offensive lineman at the time of the offer or at any subsequent point thereafter. The Seahawks wanted to change the language to say that he had to be the highest-paid from the moment they matched the contract."
Berthelsen argued that the change would have altered a principal part of the contract, a move expressly forbidden by the league's collective bargaining agreement.
"Their position was one that almost no reasonable person would agree with," Berthelsen said.
Seattle could have appealed Burbank's decision by suing in federal court. But in the meantime, they still would have had to guarantee Hutchinson's contract unless they received a stay on the ruling before Monday night's deadline.
Hutchinson will immediately improve the Vikings' once-proud offensive line, one that struggled last season after Birk underwent season-ending surgery. At 6-5 and 321 pounds, Hutchinson, 28, is known as a ferocious drive blocker and a fundamentally-sound technician.
He will team with Birk and left tackle Bryant McKinnie to provide a formidable left side. His arrival will further boost a free agent period that has seen the Vikings acquire running back Chester Taylor, linebacker Ben Leber and placekicker Ryan Longwell.