Steve Hutchinson is back in Minnesota this weekend for another big opportunity, 12 years after he left Seattle in one of the most infamous free agency moves in NFL history.
As he waits to learn whether he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, making the media rounds in Minneapolis, he has discussed his off-field legacy almost as much as what he did on the field.
Most of the Hutch Poison Pill story is well-known by Seahawks fans, but Holmgren and Hutchinson got together on KJR on Thursday and revealed some more details of one of the most dramatic stories in NFL free agency history.
Among the big revelations by the two:
Holmgren wanted to match the Vikings’ offer even though it would have meant an unprecedented guarantee of $49 million to a guard.
Holmgren and Hutch had a monster argument in a secret meeting at Seahawks HQ right after Hutch signed the offer sheet, and they didn’t talk to each other for nearly a decade after that.
The whole incident was the beginning of the end of the Holmgren era as he and GM Tim Ruskell continued to clash over the next three years and the franchise deteriorated around them.
Here’s the fascinating drama, as retold by Holmgren and Hutch on KJR:
In February 2005, the front office told Hutch they wanted to talk contract after the draft. He was excited to hear that. But, nothing materialized even after Hutch helped spearhead the best offense in team history and lead the Hawks to Super Bowl XL, with Shaun Alexander setting the NFL record for touchdowns and winning league MVP honors behind All-Pros Hutchinson and Walter Jones.
After the Seahawks returned from their controversial loss to Pittsburgh in Detroit, Holmgren sat with Ruskell and contract negotiator Mike Reinfeldt, and it was decided they would use the franchise tag on Hutch if no deal were reached by the tag deadline. Holmgren then told Hutch of that plan before the guard left for the Pro Bowl in Hawaii and Holmgren headed on vacation himself.
A week before the deadline, Hutch said his agent had gotten no real contract numbers from the team, so he assumed he was going to get the franchise tag. And he was fine with that.
“I thought I was going to end up like Walt,” he told KJR, referring to the three straight years the Hawks franchised Jones. “I’m going to go three years and I’m not going to go to training camp. This is going to be the best thing ever. … I’m not going to have to go to Cheney anymore. And I’m going to come in (at the last minute) and it’s going to be great.”
But Ruskell and Reinfeldt decided they didn’t want to franchise Hutch because it would set the bar for further negotiations at $6.98 million a year — and they didn’t want to pay a guard that much money. So they went with the transition tag, even though it was only $600,000 less and did not protect the team with draft-pick compensation if Hutch left.
Suddenly, Hutch was free to find his best deal, and the Vikings got very creative: The $49 million had to be guaranteed if he were not the highest-paid lineman on his team. Jones was Seattle’s highest-paid lineman, so they knew the Hawks couldn’t match. (Seattle altered Jones’ contract, but an arbitrator said it was too late.)
Hutch reiterated he had nothing to do with the poison pill, but he said, “I think part of me at that time was frustrated enough to show Seattle, ‘Hey, we’re not playing around.’ I knew there was a chance, if they really, really wanted to, to match it, with the entire guarantee. … I thought, ‘You made this bed; let’s see you sleep in it.'”
Meanwhile, Holmgren was livid when he returned to find Ruskell and Reinfeldt had altered the plan.
“I was hugely mad at Seahawks management,” Holmgren said. “It wasn’t Steve and me. There were other people involved who screwed the whole thing up.”
Holmgren met with Ruskell and Reinfeldt and said, “Can someone explain to me what happened? … How could you do this?
“The thinking on their part was you shouldn’t pay an offensive guard that kind of money. I can’t tell you what I said (inferred: too many expletives for radio).
“The kicker,” Holmgren said, was that owner Paul Allen wanted an explanation about how they lost their second-best player, and Ruskell had Holmgren tell him what happened. Said Holmgren: “I fell on the sword.”
When Hutch returned to Seattle from signing his offer sheet in Minneapolis, equipment manager Erik Kennedy, who was Hutch’s best friend, told Hutch that Holmgren wanted to see him. They arranged a secret meeting in Kennedy’s office at team HQ, sneaking Hutch in through the loading dock and then shutting the blinds in Kennedy’s office. And Holmgren and Hutch started “going at it” over the situation — yelling, cussing, pounding tables.
“I said things to him I had to regret for 10 years, and I know he said things to me,” Hutch said. “I think we were both kind of pissed.”
Holmgren said, “What I was mad at him about: I felt he thought I lied to him, because I said we’re going to franchise you and then that didn’t happen. So that bothered me a lot. And I took that frustration out on Steve.
“We started going at it,” Holmgren explained. “I said, ‘Why did you sign it? Why didn’t you come back to me one more time, just let me fight for you one more time (with Ruskell)?”
Holmgren and Hutch didn’t talk about it for 10 years — until they reconciled at Kennedy’s wedding. Then they coached together in NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in 2015 and 2016 and were able to finally get past it for good.
After that 2006 meeting, Holmgren tried to get Ruskell and Reinfeldt to match the contract.
“I said, ‘We messed up. We should have franchised him, but we didn’t. So we have this contract. Let’s match it. Let’s match it. He’s worth that.
“They said, ‘No we can’t do that.’ As soon as they told me that, that was kind of the beginning of the gap that started to widen and widen and widen (between Ruskell and Holmgren).
“So it was going to be a lot of money,” Holmgren said. “But, heck, he’s (a finalist for) the Hall of Fame. I was right, as it turns out.”
The Seahawks went to the playoffs without Hutch in 2006 and 2007, but their running game deteriorated and their team got old. And Ruskell continued to make moves Holmgren didn’t like. They went 4-12 in 2008, and Holmgren left the team to take a break from football.
Jim Mora led the team to just five wins in 2009, and he and Ruskell were fired. Holmgren wanted to return, but he was insulted by CEO Tod Leiweke’s weak offer and Holmgren ended up going to Cleveland.
And Leiweke, having learned his lesson about the importance of GM-coach chemistry, replaced Ruskell and Holmgren/Mora with a more compatible combination in John Schneider and Pete Carroll.