KIRKLAND — The Seahawks and the NFL lost their case against the NFL Players Association and the Minnesota Vikings today, and Seattle now has until 9 p.m. to decide if it will match the Vikings' monstrous contract offer for left guard Steve Hutchinson.
The Seahawks moved to bring back Hutchinson today, when it was confirmed they had re-worked left tackle Walter Jones' long-term contract to put him below Hutchinson as the highest-paid offensive lineman on the team, per average annual base salary.
The Seahawks presented the restructuring as part of their case against the NFLPA, their representatives hoping that by doing so, Hutchinson would then be the highest-paid offensive lineman on the team.
The NFLPA, on behalf of Hutchinson, argued that language in the Vikings' contract called for immediate highest-paid status upon the signing of the offer sheet.
Stephen Burbank, a law professor acting as "special master" in the arbitration session involving the two sides, agreed with the NFLPA. He ruled that the Jones contract could not help the Seahawks and that they'd have to abide by all provisions of the Vikings' offer in order to retain Hutchinson.
The specific terms in the Vikings' offer called for Hutchinson to be the highest-paid offensive lineman on the team from the time he signed the offer sheet, March 12, to the end of the 2006 season, said Richard Berthelsen, the NFLPA's general counsel. The total deal is for seven years at $49 million, with a salary cap number of $13 million in 2006, and all of it was to be guaranteed if the condition was not met.
Jones' deal was not re-worked until several days after March 12, meaning Hutchinson — who said at the Pro Bowl last month that he hoped to return to the Seahawks — was technically not the highest-paid lineman for much of last week.
The Seahawks had seven days from last Monday to match the offer or lose Hutchinson to the Vikings. Friday, the NFL announced that it was acting on behalf of the Seahawks to contest the clause that would make the entire $49 million guaranteed if Hutchinson was not the team's highest-paid offensive lineman, requesting a hearing with Burbank.
The arbiter ruled against the Seahawks' position this morning at the hearing in Philadelphia. Now the Seahawks have a major decision to make.
"If they do match [the offer], they'll have to guarantee the contract," said Richard Berthelsen, the NFLPA's lead attorney. "The Seahawks argued that he [Hutchinson] could be the highest-paid lineman at any time [during the contract]. They re-worked Jones' deal for one reason, and that was to bolster their case."
Berthelsen learned of the Jones restructuring Saturday, and Jones' agent, Roosevelt Barnes, confirmed that he and the Seahawks had been talking about doing so as recently as last week.
Under the re-working of Jones' contract, Jones, a six-time Pro Bowler, had the seven-year, $52.5 million contract he signed before the 2005 season extended to an eighth but voidable year for another $1 million in base salary. Barnes confirmed those figures.
That drops Jones' average annual salary from $7.5 million to $6.69 million, which is below Hutchinson's $7 million average.
Jones also had a $2 million roster bonus for 2006 converted to a signing bonus, which will be prorated over the remaining seven years of his deal and affects his annual salary cap number.
"He did it for the team," Barnes said of Jones. "Walt's a team guy and he's always been a team guy."
But it didn't help the Seahawks' cause.
The Seahawks' ability to attract big-name free agents like defensive end John Abraham, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and linebacker Julian Peterson could be hampered if they match Hutchinson's offer. By doing so, the Seahawks will probably have somewhere close to $7 million in remaining cap space.