Franchise Moves: Revisiting the Steve Hutchinson Debacle
Tim Ruskell's recent controversial handling of his linebacking corps has brought back memories of his worst move as the Seattle Seahawks' president: failing to use the franchise tag on All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson in 2006.
Ruskell's decision to remove the $8.3 million franchise tag from linebacker Leroy Hill last weekend has some scratching their heads, but it's not as big of a "he did what?!?" as when Ruskell chose to use the transition tag instead of the franchise tag on Hutch three years ago.
The Hill move was motivated by the same ideal that led Ruskell to not use the tag on Hutch: Ruskell doesn't want to start negotiations that high. He's right about Hill's value, but he was quite wrong about Hutch.
Ruskell made his first mistake in not placing the $6.98 million franchise tag on Hutchinson, and his second in allowing other teams to drive the market for the three-time Pro Bowl player. The franchise tag would have cost the Seahawks only about $600,000 more than the transition tag, and it would have guaranteed them two first-round picks from any team that signed Hutchinson.
Instead, Ruskell used the less-restrictive transition tag on Hutch, asking the guard to bring any offer to the Seahawks before signing an offer sheet. But Hutch was annoyed that the Seahawks had not shown enough interest to re-sign him before he became a free agent, so when the Minnesota Vikings offered $49 million over seven years, he took it.
The deal included a "poison-pill" provision that Hutch had to have the highest average annual salary of any offensive lineman on his team (Minnesota or Seattle) in 2006 or his entire seven-year deal would have to be guaranteed. The clause took effect on the date he signed the offer sheet.
Hutch knew about the clause and decided simply, "If they can't match, they can't match."
The problem for Seattle was that Walter Jones was the team's highest-paid lineman ($7.5 million). So the Hawks modified Jones' deal, adding a voidable eighth year at $1 million to drop the average yearly value to $6.69 million.
Then, in a hearing with special master Stephen Burbank, they tried to argue that the guarantee stipulation should not take effect until they had matched.
But Burbank ruled in favor of the Vikings and the union, meaning the reworked Jones deal came too late and the Seahawks' only choice—as it had been all along—was to guarantee the $49 million. The Seahawks decided not to.
Instead, the same day the Seahawks lost the arbitration hearing, they signed linebacker Julian Peterson to a seven-year deal worth $54 million—the kind of money they didn't think Hutch was worth.
Now it is three years later, and the Seahawks decided last month that Peterson had served his purpose and was no longer worth the money they gave him in 2006, so they traded him to Detroit (which fortunately stepped in before Ruskell simply cut Peterson).
Meanwhile, Hutchinson has been named to the All-Pro team in all three of his seasons in Minnesota, and it's looking more and more like it wouldn't have been a bad idea to guarantee the $49 million.
Crazy, you say? Well, the Lions just guaranteed $42 million to a guy who hasn't done anything in the NFL—first overall pick Matthew Stafford.
Meanwhile, Hutch is a four-time All-Pro in the prime of his career. If he plays two more seasons like the past three, it certainly can be argued that the Hawks should have called the Vikings' bluff and guaranteed the entire sum.
Of course, that is hindsight, and no NFL team back then would have promised that much money to a player of a game in which guys drop like flies every season.
But one fact remains: Ruskell made a mistake by not using the franchise tag on Steve Hutchinson in 2006.
It's a fact we're all reminded of in the wake of Peterson's sudden departure and Hill's sudden transition from franchise player to free agent.
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