Treatment Of Winfield Will Forever Be A Black Mark In Vikings History

When the Vikings signed veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield to a contract extension in 2009 the unique triggers in the deal, which de-escalated his salary if he were relegated to the nickel position primarily, should have been all the motivation the team’s front office needed to greatly upgrade the position and ensure Winfield stays put with a manageable salary.

Instead, the Vikings did little to add real firepower to the cornerback position and Winfield’s 2012 playing time meant his salary would be $7.25 million in 2013, which is obviously a lot to pay your average 36 year old corner.

The thing is, however, Antoine Winfield is not your average anything.

Ever since signing with the Vikings nine seasons ago, Winfield has been an example to every Vikings player to ever pass through the locker room, showing them how an NFL player ought to act off the field and how a great one ought to play on it.  He has defied logic by being the greatest tackling cornerback the NFL has ever seen despite his small stature.  He has played through emotional and physical pain.  He has neutralized some of the best running backs, wide outs, and even quarterbacks the Vikings ever played.  He has delivered speeches that resonated with his entire defense.  He has been an on-field coach and an off-field angel in the Twin Cities.  He has, almost single handedly, won some very memorable football games for us Vikings to remember and cherish forever.

His release sparked an outrage within the Viking fan community.  I tried to take emotion out of it when explaining the financial reasons for myself being upset, but still concluded that the Vikings front office was to blame.  After details of how the departure was orchestrated, however, I think the front office deserves blame for a lot more than simply the fact that Winfield was released.

Dan Wiederer of Access Vikings was the first to release details of how Winfield was informed of Rick Spielman’s decision.  Wiederer says that Winfield was at Winter Park working out on Tuesday morning when he was asked to go see Spielman in his office upstairs.  The release was described as “awkward” and “cold,” which is not terribly unusual in the business of the NFL, but it seems that this would be a situation that might warrant some extra tact.

Wiederer described Winfield as being confused and disappointed with how things played out.  Despite previous reports that indicated Winfield refused to take a pay cut to stay with the team, the report says that Winfield was never formally approached about restructuring or reducing his salary, which is why he and his agent were so taken by surprise with the move.  The report said Winfield felt like he deserved better, and all of us would likely agree with him.

Tom Pelissero of 1500 ESPN connected a few extra dots and writes the move to cut Winfield was a result of the team having to pay right tackle Phil Loadholt more money than they had expected to.  The story played out in such a way that the Vikings had to break their own supposed ceiling of $5 million per year to re-sign Loadholt or else he would have jumped ship to the division rival Chicago Bears.  The result apparently was a need to clear cap space and Winfield was the guy that drew the short straw.

Spielman admitted that the news was delivered to Winfield almost immediately after they had re-signed Loadholt.

The news of Winfield’s situation quickly spread following these local reports and the feelings many were feeling was beautifully summed up by Christopher Gates at Daily Norseman.  Just in the last year alone, Winfield had played his heart out shortly after learning that his brother had been murdered and also tried his hardest to play through increasing pain which was the result of a broken hand.

When Winfield left the field during a week 17 victory over the Green Bay Packers it was painfully obvious just how much of a gap there is between his talent level and that of his replacements.  Marcus Sherels and A.J. Jefferson might represent affordable youth, but Winfield defined the words “irreplaceable leader.”

Still, replacing him is now the task Spielman has assigned himself.

Today, running backs Reggie Bush and Steven Jackson [NOTE:  Jackson ended up not joining the Packers, but still] joined the NFC North.  The Vikings already share a division with three of the best quarterback-to-receiver combinations in the NFL.  Big tight ends are prevelant in these divisional games.  Yet, the Vikings chose to send their best tackler packing using youth, money, and a desire to retain “their guys” as the rationale.

Considering that the Vikings nearly sent a draft pick to Baltimore for the right to pay $6 million to a 32 year old Anquan Boldin, I’m not sure that the logic holds up.  Even more damning are recent rumors that the Vikings have been in talks with middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who is looking to be paid in the area of $5.5 million at the age of 34.

In addition, for a guy that is so stubborn about letting the market establish itself before diving in and overpaying a player during free agency, it floors me that Spielman was so willing to pay that much money to Loadholt with other top tackles still remaining unsigned as of this posting.  Jake Long, Andre Smith, and Sebastian Vollmer are a few examples.

The fact that the Vikings supposedly haven’t approached any of their high priced veterans, such as Kevin Williams and Jared Allen, about extensions or restructured contracts is troubling as progress in those areas could have kept Winfield in the fold.  Spielman is notorious for waiting until the last minute to make any moves, especially when re-signing his own free agents, but this seems to be a case where it bit him in the ass and he pinned himself into a corner.

If the Vikings had been more forthcoming with agents at the Combine, had they entered into negotiations a little sooner, and had they been more proactive about approaching their veterans for help with the cap then maybe this could have, at the very least, been done with a little more class and integrity.

Instead, our favorite team has released one of our favorite Vikings of all time, and done so in a very poor manner.

It’s a shame.  It’s a disappointment.  It was not needed.

And the buck stops at Rick Spielman’s desk.