In the middle of a hectic Tuesday, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman came down from his Winter Park office and marched to a podium to debrief the media on a week that already had been wild and was only growing busier.
Yes, Spielman had clearance to officially announce the Percy Harvin trade. But that was Monday’s news, ancient history in a league where the news cycle spins faster than a super-tornado.
And sure, the Vikings’ ability to re-sign right tackle Phil Loadholt minutes before free agency opened Tuesday provided a major boost to the offense.
But unquestionably, the biggest news surrounded the release of cornerback Antoine Winfield, a surprising move that left one of the most respected players in the organization feeling confused and disappointed.
The transaction itself, with Winfield due $7.25 million in 2013, wasn’t a total shock. The Vikings saw that as too much to invest in a soon-to-be 36-year-old cornerback. And creating additional salary cap room might have allowed the organization to better work their plans for re-signing players and exploring the rest of the free agent market.
But, according to an NFL source, the way Winfield’s dismissal unfolded proved incredibly awkward. Cold even. And those are the nice ways of putting it.
Winfield was at Winter Park on Tuesday routinely working out. Approximately an hour before the NFL’s free-agency period opened at 3 p.m., he was summoned upstairs and told he had been cut.
The discussion was brief and unceremonious, the kind of sobering transaction players always are bracing for but never ready for.
“It was a business decision as we move forward,” Spielman explained later.
But then the Vikings GM hinted he wanted to “keep the door open on [Winfield’s] possible return.” And he echoed that sentiment six times during a 15-minute presser.
Yet that “door could still be open” rhetoric felt like a hollow formality to Winfield and his agent, neither of whom had received any contingency plans when communicating with the team 90 minutes earlier.
They were simply led to believe this was likely the end — harsh but necessary.
Winfield, the source said, initially felt confused and blindsided, never led to believe this might be a possibility, without negotiation, in the 11th hour before free agency. The 87-hour window that agents for free agents had for negotiating had passed. Winfield was suddenly out of a job and also playing from way behind in finding a new team.
After nine years in the organization, the cornerback believed he deserved better, that he was owed more. On top of that, the source said, contrary to other published reports, the Vikings never had formally proposed a possible restructuring of Winfield’s contract as a means of keeping him.
And while that wasn’t a pitch the cornerback’s camp had been willing to entertain, the proposal should have been made if the Vikings seriously were entertaining having Winfield back.
Spielman said Tuesday he had “a very good conversation” with Winfield and classified the move to release him as “extremely, extremely difficult.”
What remains to be seen is what the ripple effect will be, both on the depth chart and in the locker room. At present, the Vikings’ cornerback unit is now headlined by Chris Cook with Josh Robinson, A.J. Jefferson, Brandon Burton, Marcus Sherels and Bobby Felder also in the mix.
More so, player reaction likely won’t be favorable after the release of a player as adored as Winfield. This wasn’t any old way-past-his-prime veteran. This was Winfield, the guy who had logged nine seasons with the Vikings, consistently wowing those around him with his unique combination of toughness and intelligence. This was the charismatic leader beloved by the coaching staff. The guy, who in his 14th season epitomized the Vikings’ 2012 resurgence, delivering wonderful production while galvanizing the young secondary around him.
Even his play last season was youthful: 110 tackles, 11 for loss, three interceptions, a fumble recovery and 13 passes defended.
He played through pain — emotionally, when his younger brother was murdered in early September and physically when he played the regular season finale and playoff game with a fractured right hand.
By late Tuesday, at least a half-dozen surprised teams had inquired about potentially signing Winfield. The Vikings insist they are leaving their doors open if nothing works out.
But at this point, the source said, Winfield views that rhetoric simply as a way of politely kicking him out the door. It’s far from the exit he envisioned.
He still plans to play in 2013. But as of now it might well be somewhere else.