Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.
Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.
It’s a cold-hearted business sometimes, this NFL.
And if we all didn’t have a true understanding of that concept already, Tuesday provided another eye-opening example.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield had gone to the Vikings’ facility, per his usual routine, to work out. He had no way of knowing that would be his last trip into the building. About an hour before free agency opened, as the Vikings sorted through some complex financial discussions, Winfield became just a number.
Two numbers really.
In decisive form, General Manager Rick Spielman made a business move, void of emotion. He summoned Winfield upstairs and told him he was cut. The awkwardness of that move and the confusion it created for one of the most beloved players in franchise history is detailed in our story from last night. We suggest you give that a read and soak it in.
But to understand the maneuver from a business standpoint, it must be noted that Spielman and the front office were active Tuesday in re-signing several of their own players. A half-dozen of them in all. Most notably: right tackle Phil Loadholt and fullback Jerome Felton. Loadholt reportedly inked a deal worth $25 million over four years. Felton was given a $7.5 million contract over three years.
The Vikings also rewarded linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Jamarca Sanford, receiver Jerome Simpson and offensive lineman Joe Berger by keeping them around.
Spielman’s vision for the future forces him to make such tough decisions. As this week goes on, and really as the Vikings’ plow ahead from now through the end of the draft in April, they will do so with a plan. And then a Plan B. And Plans C, D, E and F.
“This is a very fluid business,” Spielman noted Tuesday.
And so even the GM acknowledged the conflicting emotions of such a busy day.
“When you have to make tough business decisions, it makes it extremely hard. One minute you’re elated because you got Phil Loadholt done and the next minute you don’t feel as good because you had to do something with Winfield, which makes this job extremely, extremely difficult.”
What made Winfield’s release all the more confusing for the cornerback and his agent is the lack of discussions that preceded it. At no point, during the league’s 87-hour negotiating window from Saturday through Tuesday where teams and agents could be in contact, was there any hint that Winfield could soon be on the street. No one from the Vikings front office even proposed a pay cut or contract restructuring.
Winfield and his agent knew, in this league, that’s always a possibility. But they didn’t expect, after nine seasons of service, that in the snap of two fingers, a loyal locker room leader would have a trap door opened beneath him.
Sure, the Vikings had talked with Winfield’s agent, Ashanti Webb, at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis three weeks earlier. And yes, in passing, the Vikings had mentioned just generally that Winfield’s $7.25 million salary could catch their eye as free agency nears. But, according to Webb, the conversations in Indy were casual, informal. No specific proposals were drawn up. And none were offered Tuesday when Winfield was released.
Spielman was asked if he had offered Winfield a chance to stick around at a lower cost.
“I don’t want to get into the details of it,” he said. “It was just a very, extremely hard decision to make but hopefully we’ll be able to keep the door open for him.”
Four days before free agency began, I had approached an NFL source to ask whether the Vikings had been in contact about a contract restructuring. They hadn’t, the source told me. And even if they did, it wasn’t something Winfield was going to consider.
Said the source: “The way he played last year? Please. You need to look at the game film and not the birth certificate. The only way Antoine is taking a pay cut next season is if the NFL decides to suddenly up its AARP taxes.”
So who knows what would have happened had restructuring discussions come up between Spielman and Webb? The fact is, for three weeks leading up to free agency, that possibility was never brought up. It led to a very unceremonious end of a terrific Vikings career.
By late Tuesday afternoon, as you might imagine, calls inquiring about Winfield’s availability were pouring in. The message was made clear. Even if Winfield’s days as a Vikings were over, his career is not. He fully intends to play next season. And, if 2012 is any indication, he can still play at a high level.
Spielman repeatedly noted Tuesday that he would leave the door open for a possible reunion with Winfield in the weeks or months ahead. What would that take?
“We’ll just have to see,” Spielman said.
He shall see just how much other teams value Winfield’s service. He shall see if the manner in which Tuesday’s transaction went down will leave Winfield itching for a new home. By all accounts, amid the awkwardness and confusion, Winfield handled Tuesday’s business with his characteristic professionalism and positive energy. On the way out the door, the Vikings encouraged Winfield to keep in contact and to report back to them with any numbers that might be out there for him in free agency.
It now becomes one of the more interesting subplots around the NFL.
Antoine Winfield's 15th NFL season won't come in Minnesota.
The Vikings have released the sure-tackling cornerback and locker room leader as the 3 p.m. opening bell for free agency closes in, an NFL source has confirmed.
Winfield, who turns 36 on June 24, was the 23rd overall pick of the Bills in 1999. He played five seasons in Buffalo before joining the Vikings in 2004. He went on to become arguably the best unrestricted free agent acquisition in teams history over the next nine seasons.
Winfield was due to make $7.25 million in the final year of his current contract. Although his age didn't mesh with the team's youth movement, Winfield was expected to finish out his contract, serving as both a veteran presence and one of the team's best defensive players.
Winfield was not willing to take a pay cut this season, which could have been a factor in today's decision.
What the Vikings do with the extra cap room -- they're roughly $20 million under the cap -- remains to be seen. They've re-signed receiver Jerome Simpson, but are still in the market for a No. 1 receiver. The Vikings aren't expected to chase after UFA receiver Mike Wallace, who is expected to get $11 million a year or more. Then again, the Vikings weren't expected to release Winfield. So hang on. This ride could get even wilder before it ends.
In what is a very busy and fluid week in the NFL business world, we’ll do our best to not only keep you up to speed with all the latest Vikings transactions but to provide a summary of what it all means. Be sure to check back with this post regularly for updates.
VIKINGS’ 2013 FREE AGENCY CHECKLIST
What has happened so far …
THE LATEST MOVE: (Friday night) The Vikings have signed receiver Greg Jennings, a 29-year-old veteran who had tormented them for the previous seven seasons with the Packers. Jennings was given a five-year deal, which reportedly could be worth up to $47.5 million with $18 million guaranteed. What it means: For starters, it means quarterback Christian Ponder gets a proven receiver to be his top target, a big move for the franchise after it traded away Percy Harvin on Monday. Jennings' versatility should be a plus. He can serve as a legitimate outside threat and is also potent out of the slot. On top of that, the Vikings are already raving about the positive energy and professionalism they expect him to lend to what figures to otherwise be a very, very young receiving unit. With Jennings signed as the top gun and a very deep pool of talent awaiting at receiver in this year's draft, the Vikings may no longer need to pull the trigger on a pass catcher in the first round -- even with picks Nos. 23 and 25. Logic says a standout talent should still be available in Round 2 and perhaps the Vikings use those two first-round picks to find help at middle linebacker and cornerback. Jennings' signing and the cash it took to complete means the team's significant offseason spending is done. Any free agent additions from here on out are likely to be minimal.
What’s left to do
Last year, around this time, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier kept hearing about Percy Harvin.
First, while coaching the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and later at the 2012 NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Frazier was repeatedly approached by opposing coaches, who in casual conversation just kept mentioning how much of a headache it was to defend Harvin.
The energetic slot receiver was just so slippery, so dynamic, so explosive.
The more Frazier heard from peers and foes about the stress Harvin could cause an opposing defense, the more he realized Harvin had to become an even bigger cog in the Vikings’ attack. And so plans were tweaked, Harvin’s role was enhanced and for eight games in 2012, the explosive playmaker did a little bit of everything.
He took bubble screens and short quick-hit passes and turned them into big gains. He lined up in the backfield and displayed his demolition derby style as a running back. He lobbied for more action on special teams and continued to be one of the league’s most electrifying return men, evidenced best by his 105-yard score in Week 4 in Detroit.
At the season’s midpoint, Harvin was the Vikings star being propped up as a league MVP candidate, not Adrian Peterson. Harvin was the one who seemed more responsible for the team’s 5-3 start, amassing a league-best 60 catches and totaling 739 yards from scrimmage with five total touchdowns mixed in. (Peterson, for the record, had 914 yards from scrimmage and four TDs after eight games.)
But now? Well, now all that Percy Harvin feel-good has been snowed under by a blizzard of Percy Harvin confusion. Most significantly: the question on whether Harvin will remain a Viking in 2013 and beyond cannot be answered definitively, fueling a new wave of speculation that he may soon be traded.\
To be clear, this uncertainty and these rumors have existed for a while now, even if they are just now mushrooming and making bigger headlines nationally. But much of the outside conjecture is justified as the Vikings coaching staff and front office continues keep the details of Harvin’s saga very, very private.
Percy Harvin? On the trading block? Could it be?
Yes. Yes, it could be.
When the Vikings head back to the Combine next week, you can bet they’ll cast a few Harvin-baited hooks into the waters and see if there are any nibbles. And with the 24-year-old playmaker heading into the final year of his rookie deal, now may be a practical time to pull the trigger.
After all, keeping Harvin happy in Minnesota in 2013 would likely require a lucrative long-term contract extension. And with the durability and personality question marks that are in permanent ink in Harvin’s evaluation file, the Vikings have to measure the risk-reward of investing in Harvin long-term versus dealing him for a few choice draft picks.
Are Harvin’s game-changing skills so valuable that they mitigate the ever-present worry that his moodiness may one day grow too toxic for a team looking to fuel its rise with low-maintenance, drama-free players? That’s what the Vikings must decide. And that decision is only complicated by the market value Harvin now has at a position where salaries are quickly escalating.
Publicly, neither Frazier nor General Manager Rick Spielman would benefit from openly declaring Harvin up for auction. But you can bet the Vikings will be listening to interested suitors at the combine, perhaps ready to move away from the dangerous temper wick attached to Harvin’s toughness, speed and elusiveness.
The abrupt end to Harvin’s 2012 season still registers as strange. Yes, there was the severe left ankle sprain Harvin suffered in the second half of a Week 9 loss in Seattle. And that was followed by a four-and-a-half-week stretch in which, despite a calculated combination of rest and rehabilitation, Harvin’s ankle just never improved enough for him to get back on the field. So the Vikings insist the decision to end Harvin’s season with a move to Injured Reserve on the Wednesday of Week 14 was purely protective, a decision to keep the always aggressive receiver from pursuing a return to action in a way that could endanger his long-term health.
But along with that plausible explanation comes the inevitable follow-up questions, the ones the Vikings never really did answer head-on: If the injury was the only thing being evaluated, then was it really a practical move to end Harvin’s season on Dec. 5, in the middle of a playoff push, with four regular games left? It was, after all just an ankle sprain. And wasn’t it peculiar that Harvin’s injury never required surgery and that the Vikings’ played their playoff game at Lambeau Field 62 days after the receiver sprained that ankle?
Seems only fair to wonder if Harvin might have been able to play in that contest.
And so the mystery looms, heightened even further when you think back to the awkwardness Frazier displayed on the podium at Winter Park hours before the Harvin-to-I.R. move was rubber-stamped.
Asked directly if there were issues beyond the ankle injury that were contributing to Harvin’s absence, Frazier paused and squirmed for a moment.
“You know, it’s …” Frazier said. “I know that he wants to win like we do. And I’m sure he’s going to do everything he can to do what he has to do to help our football team.
“We’ll see where it goes.”
READ BETWEEN THE LINES
Meanwhile, if you want direct and honest answers from the Vikings head coach and GM on their Harvin feelings? Sorry. That’s not going to happen. But here is what we can tell you about what Frazier and Spielman have said about Harvin since the Vikings’ season ended with a playoff loss in Green Bay last month.
First, there was Frazier’s insistence that Harvin’s odd disappearance from the team in December was no big deal and a firm declaration that the mercurial receiver “will coexist peacefully” within the organization going forward.
“He exists peacefully now,” Frazier said.
Sometime last month, Harvin finally returned to Winter Park for a mandatory exit physical. And here is how Frazier summarized his most recent conversation with Harvin.
“I told him how much I love him and want him to be a part of our team,” Frazier told KFAN’s Dan Barreiro in a Feb. 3 interview. “And all those things that he hears in questions that are asked to me about his future in Minnesota, I mean I want him to play for our team. I don’t want him to play for anyone else. And I tried to put that to rest with him. So he’s clear on how I feel. And we have great respect for one another and hope that things will be great next season.”
As for Spielman? In his season-ending gathering with local reporters, he denied that the team had concerns about Harvin’s attitude, saying flat out: “We have no issues with Percy Harvin.”
Which, of course, is exactly what a GM would say if a) he really had no issues with Harvin; or b) if he was being careful to minimize and hide any such problems so as not to scare off potential trade partners or reduce Harvin’s trade value.
You can see why the opening for conspiracy theories and speculation continues to open wide. And so, if you choose, you can be the one that reads between the lines on everything Spielman says. Like when he told KFAN’s Paul Allen in a radio interview Friday that he would love a scenario in which the Vikings went into April’s draft armed with 10 or 11 picks.
Wait … But … The Vikings only have eight selections at present. So Spielman had to have up something big in mind with that insinuation, right?
And how about the sudden silliness that sprung up Sunday when the Vikings’ 2013 season ticket poster was noted for having five standouts featured: Peterson and Jared Allen and Chad Greenway and Antoine Winfield and Christian Ponder.
No Harvin? That, the conspiracy theorists will argue, also has to mean something.
So yep, this is where a complicated situation can too often become overwhelmed with gossip and innuendo.
With well-rehearsed talking points, the Vikings continue to publicly discuss Harvin by expressing everything you already knew. That Harvin is a good football player. A blue-chip player in fact. And that he’s under contract for one more season. And then when paired with Peterson, he gives the Vikings two big-play threats that makes the Vikings offense very, very dangerous.
It’s also worth noting that commitment is a two-way street. So even if the Vikings were fully intent on finding a way to make things work with Harvin long-term, the receiver himself would have to reciprocate such interest.
And given that Harvin hasn’t done an interview in nearly three months, it’s hard to know what exactly he’s thinking about all this.
Instead, the soap opera continues, Harvin’s future as a Vikings as iffy as ever,
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