Where Exactly Did It Go Wrong for the Minnesota Vikings?

Matthew Stensrud@@MattStensrudContributor IIIJanuary 1, 2014

Antoine Winfield played for the Minnesota Vikings for nine seasons from 2004-2012.
Antoine Winfield played for the Minnesota Vikings for nine seasons from 2004-2012.Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The date was March 12, 2013 and the Minnesota Vikings had recently agreed to complete a blockbuster trade with the Seattle Seahawks one day prior.

Percy Harvin would be shipped to the West Coast for Seattle's first- and seventh-round draft picks in 2013 and a third-round pick in 2014.

In a move that removed the mercurial receiver from the Vikings club, general manager Rick Spielman was stocking up draft picks to prepare for the future.

However, in one short hour after free agency officially began, he announced a move that also crippled Minnesota for the 2013 season.

Tom Pelissero was the first to break the crushing news.

It was at this exact point where it went so terribly wrong for the Vikings.

The fact that Antoine Winfield was 36 and scheduled to make $7.25 million this past season was clearly the impetus for such a decision.

But the way the move was handled closed the door for any potential negotiation or return to the team.

According to Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune, the way the situation unfolded was "cold" and "awkward," with no real attempt at any alternative:

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.

Wiederer continued:

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.

In one fell swoop, the Vikings had removed the top ranked cornerback in the entire NFL from 2012, as rated by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

For a player who saw more snaps (1,058) in 2012 than the next two top-rated cornerbacks Richard Sherman (980) and Charles Tillman (938), Winfield was in line for a reduced role if retained for 2013.

Was the veteran cornerback on the decline?

Let's see how he compared to all cornerbacks in the NFL over the past five years.

Antoine Winfield Cornerback Rankings
YearOverallPass CoverageRun Defense
Pro Football Focus

Rather than attempt to explore every possible option for Winfield to stay with the team, Minnesota kicked one of its best defenders for nearly a decade to the curb as if he was just another commodity.

Spielman apparently felt comfortable with cornerback Chris Cook stepping up as the leader on the Vikings, a player who has been unable to stay on the field due to injury and has never recorded an interception or forced fumble in his career.

Alongside Cook, second-year cornerback Josh Robinson was primed to step into a starting role and demonstrate his potential after being selected in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft (66th overall).

Instead, what the Vikings received in return were two of the worst cornerbacks in all of football for 2013. Cook and Robinson ranked 93rd and 99th, respectively, via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

The painful absence of Winfield was immediately felt in the first three games of the season, as the Vikings went 0-3 in devastating fashion.

The team led all three games at intermission before failing to close out in the second half. That included two collapses in the final minute of each game against the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns.

Chris Cook attempts to make a play on tight end Martellus Bennett on the game-winning touchdown in Week 2.
Chris Cook attempts to make a play on tight end Martellus Bennett on the game-winning touchdown in Week 2.Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

That stretch of atrocity ultimately cemented the Vikings season with no recovery in sight, especially in the secondary with the gaping hole left by Winfield. Minnesota allowed an average of 32 points and 315.7 passing yards during that time.

After the bye week, the Vikings lost four straight games including another last-minute collapse on defense, this time against the Dallas Cowboys. The team stood at 1-7 and was essentially out of the playoffs.

Even with all of the instability at quarterback, Minnesota's defense destroyed any chance of a successful season in 2013. The Vikings finished dead last in points allowed with 30 and a final record of 5-10-1.

As we reflect on a season that included a tie against the Green Bay Packers and one of the craziest finishes in 50 years in Baltimore, it's hard not to shake your head in disbelief.

But the greatest level of disbelief should've occurred last March with the departure of Winfield.

The Vikings watched one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL walk out the door, and watched their season go along with it.

All statistics courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.

Matthew Stensrud is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+



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