We’ve been fielding a lot of questions about veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield in the past week with curiosity rising as to which way his free agency journey is headed. And so here’s the obligatory update, chock full of detail and read-between-the-lines context.
First, allow us to redirect you to the start of this saga and Winfield’s awkward release on March 12, less than an hour before free agency began.
Then, make certain to get up to speed on how and why it all went down.
And then, if you’re interested, digest the comments of Vikings coach Leslie Frazier from last week’s NFL owners meetings to understand just how much Winfield has meant in the locker room, in the classroom and on the field for the Vikings.
Now, let’s move forward with five other things we know in a situation being described by those familiar as “fluid,” “complex,” “hard to solve” …
- Winfield arrived in Washington on Wednesday evening, on a job interview/recruiting trip with the Redskins. This is, so far, the only confirmed visit the 35-year-old defensive back has made since becoming a free agent two weeks ago. Several other teams have reportedly expressed interest. But as of now, Washington seems to be the only other team to have grabbed the rope in the Winfield tug-o-war. The appeal of possibly joining the Redskins? Well, above all else, Winfield wants to make certain that whomever he decides to play for in 2013 is positioned to contend for a championship. And the ‘Skins certainly qualify, having won seven straight at the end of last season to win the NFC East. The presence of wunderkind quarterback Robert Griffin III – severe knee injury, long rehabilitation process and all – provides plenty of allure. The Redskins also have an opening in their secondary that Winfield would be able to fill.
- A return to Winter Park has not been ruled out. Discussions between Winfield, his representatives and the Vikings have been ongoing. And Winfield has a multitude of reasons to seriously consider that reunion. For one, continuing on with the team he’s spent the past nine seasons with in a defensive system he knows inside and out has obvious appeal over starting over in an unfamiliar city with unfamiliar coaches and teammates and an unfamiliar defense. Winfield doesn’t take that lightly. In addition, as awkward as his release was two weeks ago, Winfield harbors great respect for Frazier, for defensive coordinator Alan Williams, for defensive backs coach Joe Woods and for so many of his Vikings teammates. And that respect and adoration is more than reciprocated.
- Fans, believe it or not, have played at least a small role in aiding the Vikings’ cause in the past two weeks. The news that Winfield had been released proved jarring to so many Viking backers who’d grown attached to his hustle and toughness and savvy over the past nine years. Many fans, upset with the Vikings’ business move, began sending support letters and e-mails to Winfield and his camp. The outpouring of love was significant. And one NFL source said that if the cornerback does decide to circle back to reunite with the Vikings, there will be three big reasons he does so. “The biggest factors in potentially pulling Antoine back there would be a) coaching staff; b) teammates; c) fans,” the source said. “The fan support has been overwhelming. And it does mean something.”
- While the Vikings made an emotionless business decision to cut Winfield, lopping off his $7.25 million salary for 2013 and creating necessary cap room to make several major moves in free agency, the cornerback’s next big decision will not be a cash grab. To those in the know, money will not be Winfield’s deciding factor. He’s looking to contend for a title. He’s looking for the right fit. He wants to feel comfortable. Salary, of course, will play some role. But after 14 seasons in the league, it’s far from the priority at this point.
- A return to the Vikings would require Winfield to swallow his pride. Yes, the NFL is a business. Every player understands the never-ending uncertainty surrounding their job status. But when you’re a player as accomplished as Winfield, as respected as Winfield, as strong of a leader as Winfield, you come to expect at least some form of preferential treatment. And so even with the emotion-free business mentality the Vikings needed to pull the plug on Winfield two weeks ago, such a move can prove very dangerous for an organization in regards to the context it establishes for all players. For starters, considering the high level Winfield played at in 2012 and the leadership he brought to a young secondary, his unceremonious release potentially sent a message to an entire team that those qualities aren’t as valued as they should be. And yes, in the long term, it can create tension between players and the front office, particularly as younger guys head toward their next contract negotiations a bit more unsettled feeling and less willing to partake in the give-and-take after an established standout like Winfield gets shoved out in such cold fashion. As far as Winfield is concerned, there’s also still at least some lingering feeling that the Vikings made it known on March 12 that they really didn’t need him anymore, pushing him out the door and then following with a confusing “Hey wait honey, come back!” plea. The whole thing was awkward from the moment it happened. And that awkwardness hasn’t fully gone away yet. It may. And Winfield could very well re-sign with the Vikings. But for now, there’s a visit in Washington, a lot to mull over and no timeline restricting the decision.