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Originally published November 17, 2009 at 6:14 PM | Page modified November 17, 2009 at 10:01 PM

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Danny O'Neil

Seahawks game at Minnesota will be another reminder of the Steve Hutchinson fiasco

Seattle president Tim Ruskell has been criticized for letting All-Pro guard go to Vikings.

Seattle Times NFL reporter

Free agency was days away and the youngest of Seattle's six Pro Bowlers on offense was about to enter the marketplace when the Seahawks caved.

They upped their offer to guard Steve Hutchinson, increasing the $6 million a year average they'd been sticking with to about $6.4 million.

Too late. The NFL's free-agent marketplace was on the brink of an explosion. Hutchinson would be a prime beneficiary while the Seahawks took the business end of the stick.

Four years later, it remains the most volatile of all Seahawks topics. Some fans are still gnashing their teeth, others insist it's well past time to get over it. Seattle lost its Mr. Mean from an offensive line that was considered one of the best in the league in 2005. No one around here has forgotten that.

Tim Ruskell's future as Seattle's president is being weighed as he enters the final months of his contract with the Seahawks, and he will come eye-to-eye once again with the biggest mistake in his tenure when the Seahawks play at Hutchinson's Vikings on Sunday. Ruskell was not made available for comment on this story.

Hutchinson has been paid more than $30 million by Minnesota through four of the seven seasons on his contract. His departure proved even more costly for Seattle.

Ruskell didn't want to lose Hutchinson. No one with the Seahawks did. His departure was the culmination of decisions that seemed logical at the time, but added up to leave Seattle with its fly open as free agency began.

Game of tag

Feb. 23, 2006: The Seahawks weren't looking for a one-year savings when they designated Hutchinson their transition player. Sure, the designation required a one-year contract offer of $6.39 million as opposed to the $6.98 million that would go to a franchise player, but Seattle wasn't pinching pennies so much as it was trying to pave the way toward a long-term deal with Hutchinson.

Making him the franchise player would have protected Seattle, but it also would have led to a negotiating logjam. He wasn't going to agree to a long deal that averaged $6 million, not while the Seahawks were on the hook to pay him $7 million in 2006 while also preventing him from entering the open market.

Coach Mike Holmgren arrived at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, and did not know Hutchinson had been designated Seattle's transition player until a reporter asked him.

A franchise tag would have given Seattle two first-round picks as compensation should someone sign Hutchinson to an offer sheet the Seahawks did not match. A transition tag provided nada.

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National picture

March 8, 2006: It wasn't one thing that changed in the three weeks between Seattle's application of the transition tag to the start of free agency on March 10. It was everything that changed in the league's financial structure.

The collective-bargaining agreement was extended, essentially rewriting the league's salary-cap structure one week before free agency was to begin. Under the old CBA, the salary cap was less than $95 million and there was the expectation that there would be widespread bloodletting with so many cap-strapped teams in the league.

Instead, the cap increased to $102 million. The new CBA was agreed to on Wednesday night, free agency scheduled to begin on Friday at 9 a.m. Pacific.

The NFL's economic model was about to change. At the time Hutchinson was designated Seattle's transition player, only one guard made more than the $6.39 million Hutchinson was offered: Larry Allen. A year later, Seattle couldn't get Chargers guard Kris Dielman to accept a similar seven-year, $49 million offer it never ponied up to Hutchinson.

Exit

March 12, 2006: Seattle didn't have a chance to change its tag designation on Hutchinson, and it was at that point the Seahawks knew the pendulum of the NFL finances had begun to swing. They just didn't know how far.

They increased their offer to Hutchinson before free agency began, but it wasn't enough to re-sign him. He entered the open market and on Sunday signed an offer sheet famously laced with a poison pill.

The contract was for seven years, $49 million, but this is the NFL and most of that money was not guaranteed, which meant the Vikings weren't on the hook should he be injured or decline in skills. Minnesota's offer sheet stipulated that if Hutchinson weren't the highest-paid offensive lineman on the team the moment he signed the offer sheet, the contract would become fully guaranteed. In Minnesota, he was the highest-paid so the provision didn't apply. In Seattle, he wasn't.

When Hutchinson was introduced in Minnesota, he made it clear Seattle had a chance to sign him and wasted it.

"The truth of the matter is that I wanted to have a contract extension done before last season, and certainly before the tag deadline," Hutchinson said. "The Seahawks were either unwilling or unwanting to give me that contract, and Minnesota stepped up to the plate and offered it to me."

And like that he was gone. Four years later, Seattle is still trying to recover.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

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About Danny O'Neil

Danny O'Neil will comment on issues, events and personalities in the NFL. His column will appear on Sundays during the regular season. He also posts most days on the Seahawks Blog.
doneil@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2364

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