Tim Fuller-US PRESSWIRE
Yesterday, I again made the mistake of attempting to get some sleep before the National Football League's free agency period got underway and things got crazy around here. So I'm laying there, attempting to get to sleep, and suddenly I hear the notification on my GChat go off. After contemplating ignoring it, I grabbed my laptop off the nightstand to see what was going on.
It was a message from Joel Thorman, one of the guys (along with his brother Chris) that founded SB Nation's Kansas City Chiefs site, Arrowhead Pride, and who is now the lead NFL editor for SB Nation. Since he's generally on top of all the news that happens and gives us a heads-up on what's going on, I knew that something had happened with the Vikings. So, in my half-asleep state, I look at the chat box and saw a combination of words that I couldn't grasp seeing together.
So my mind attempts to comprehend this, and I'm thinking to myself, "The Vikings only have one guy named Winfield and it's Antoine Winfield and the Minnesota Vikings are NOT releasing Antoine Winfield." But, a quick check of Twitter and a couple of e-mails from my co-writers confirmed that, indeed, the Minnesota Vikings were releasing Antoine Winfield.
Part of me can kind of, sort of, almost understand the reasoning. Winfield was the oldest player on the Minnesota roster at age 36, and had a fairly significant cap figure to deal with at $7.25 million. So, to look at it from a purely business standpoint, it was feasible. I didn't necessarily like it, but it was feasible. But when you look at what the guy has done and what he meant to the Minnesota Vikings and what kind of leader he was, it started to make less and less sense.
Let me remind you that this is a man who, this past season, took the field for the season opener just days after learning of the murder of his younger brother. He missed one practice leading up to the game, played his ass off in the season opener, and then left the team for a few days to help plan his brother's funeral.
This is a man who also attempted to play through a broken hand not once, but twice this past season. He did so in the regular season finale against the Green Bay Packers, and had to leave the game when he simply couldn't deal with the pain any longer. With a different cast, he played in the Wild Card round against the Packers the next week as well.
And lest we forget, in that regular season finale against the Packers, as soon as Antoine Winfield went into the locker room, the Minnesota Vikings' secondary went into the toilet. Marcus Sherels was forced into the defensive backfield, and was regularly used and abused by Aaron Rodgers in the second half of that ball game. Had it not been for Brian Robison forcing a Rodgers fumble on a drive where the Packers were marching down the field again, there's a very good chance that the Vikings would have lost that ball game, because that secondary sure as hell wasn't stopping anybody in the second half that day.
Yes, he's an older player. . .but Winfield wasn't just getting older, he was getting better, and defying conventional logic at every turn of the 2012 season. Always known for his ability to come up and support the run, his coverage skills were really getting noticed as well. With the lack of seasoned talent behind him, it just didn't make any sense for the Vikings to get rid of a player like him.
I had a while to sort of let it marinate and try to make sense of it. Then I saw this article from Tom Pelissero about Winfield's release and the reasoning behind it.
The veteran cornerback's surprise release on Tuesday came shortly after the Vikings finalized a contract with right tackle Phil Loadholt that ended up being worth $25 million over four years.
That was more than the Vikings ever expected to pay Loadholt, according to NFL sources, but they weren't letting him out of the building. So, Winfield was shown the exit instead.
There was no negotiation of a potential paycut, nor had there been any talks since a vague meeting weeks earlier at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
If there had been, Winfield -- due $7.25 million in base salary for 2013 -- might have listened.
There had been chatter that had gone across Twitter and other sources earlier in the day that Winfield had refused to take a pay cut, and that's the reason he was let go. Apparently, that's not the case. . .he was let go so that the Vikings could keep Phil Loadholt from going to the Chicago Bears.
This is where the "holy crap, are you kidding me" aspect of things started to come into play for me.
Let me get this straight. . .you want to let go of the man that was the unquestioned leader of your defense in 2012 and a man who, as you saw first hand, means a great deal to your incredibly young secondary? You want to do this in order to free up some money to sign one of your "home grown" players? Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that the Vikings kept Phil Loadholt and everything. . .
But why not ask Jared Allen to restructure his deal to free up some space? Allen is set to have a cap hit this year in excess of $17 million. The MVP of the National Football League. . .who just happens to be Allen's teammate. . .has a cap figure of $13.9 million for this season. As much as we all like Jared Allen, that's not right. You couldn't have done some sort of extension with him to free up cap room?
Or what about Kevin Williams? Williams has. . .well, had. . .a similar cap figure to Winfield's, in the $7 million range. Kevin Williams has been a great Viking and everything, as we all know, but really. . .when faced with the task of replacing a good defensive tackle or a great cornerback in today's National Football League, it should be a no-brainer. Williams should have been in line for a re-structure or pay cut before Winfield, in my opinion. . .and if he didn't want to take it, he's the one that should have been cleaning out his locker.
(And if those guys were asked to do something to help facilitate the Vikings' salary situation and they refused? Then shame on them, too.)
But, the Vikings gave Winfield the axe, and Vikings fans everywhere were flabbergasted by it. With Winfield's $7 million-plus off the books, surely it meant that something big was coming down the pike, right? I mean, the Vikings wouldn't just let someone as prominent and productive as Winfield go without doing something major, would they?
The Vikings went into the opening round of free agency with about $25 million worth of cap space. . .and, as of now, haven't done much with it. That could change in the next day or two, but I'm not sure if we should expect that or not. But thus far, it doesn't look like anything that was worth dumping your best defensive player for, that's for sure.
I hate to keep going back to the Percy Harvin thing, but it irks me that Harvin, despite all his antics, basically got to write his own out in Minnesota. He disrespected the coaches, he bad-mouthed his quarterback, he abandoned his teammates during a playoff run. . .and he was rewarded. He wanted out of Minnesota. . .he got out of Minnesota. He wanted more money. . .he got more money. Just like in every other instance in his athletic career, if Percy Harvin threw a big enough fit, Percy Harvin was rewarded.
Antoine Winfield, on the other hand, went to Winter Park on Tuesday to work out and make himself a better, healthier, more vital part of the Vikings' team. He left with a pink slip. A man that was a leader not just on the field, but a leader and a positive influence off of it. Someone that should have been respected and admired. Someone that should have been allowed to, and seemed to be quite happy to, end his career wearing purple and gold. Just kicked to the curb.
Sadly, what we have here is another case of bad behavior being rewarded, and good behavior being punished. And the only word I can think of to describe it is "wrong." It's wrong. Completely, totally, one-hundred percent wrong.
In his press conference on Tuesday, Rick Spielman said that they were leaving the door open for Winfield to come back. There's a better chance of John Carlson leading the National Football League in receiving in 2013 than there is of Antoine Winfield coming back to the Minnesota Vikings. Not with the way things reportedly went down on Tuesday. I can't believe that Spielman actually thinks there's a chance of him re-signing for a lower salary in the first place. And, as much as I love the Minnesota Vikings, I don't blame Antoine Winfield one damn bit.
I like a lot of the things that Rick Spielman has done since being named the main guy in the Vikings front office. And I largely like the direction this team is moving in under his leadership. But this move, to me, is just so mind-boggling and nonsensical that I wonder how it could have been made at all. We've seen what this defense is capable of with Antoine Winfield in the lineup, and we've seen what this defense is capable of without him. The latter is not pretty. Hell, it doesn't even have a nice personality. It's just ugly.
But that's what we're looking at in this new era of Vikings football, everyone. The folks at Winter Park better hope they can do something to shore up this secondary. After Tuesday, cornerback just jumped way up the list of Vikings needs. As it stands now, the #1 cornerback is Chris Cook. . .a man who, in his three NFL seasons, has more games missed (26) than games played (23, which includes one playoff game). Behind him is a whole lot of raw talent in Josh Robinson and A.J. Jefferson. In this division, that's simply not good enough.
A man that's been a great member of the Minnesota Vikings for the last nine seasons isn't going to be here to make it a tenth. That's just the way it is.
What's sad is that it didn't have to be that way.