With a knock on his hotel door Saturday in Minneapolis, Steve Hutchinson will know he has become a Hall of Famer. The guard, who played his first five seasons with the Seahawks before the infamous “poison pill” contract clause, hopes it will legitimize his career.
Here we go again: On Saturday, an athlete with deep Seattle ties will find out if he has made the Hall of Fame.
There are obvious reasons Steve Hutchinson’s quest to reach the NFL pinnacle hasn’t garnered the same near-hysterical local focus as that of the Mariners’ Edgar Martinez a week ago. But know this: Whatever hard feelings might have existed when the perennial All-Pro guard left the Seahawks in 2006 have long since faded on his part. And it’s the perfect time for a reconciliation by Seahawks fans who might still feel burned by the “poison pill” episode that resulted in Hutchinson bolting Seattle’s first Super Bowl team to sign with the Vikings.
Pro Football Hall of Famers aren’t presented with the opportunity to represent a particular team, but Hutchinson — who teamed with Walter Jones to form one of the greatest offensive-line tandems in NFL history — told me, “If I had a choice, I would put the Seahawks logo on it.”
Hutchinson, in fact, says he would love to expand his presence around the Seahawks. That process took an important, symbolic step when he hoisted the 12th man flag with his 2005 offensive-line teammates in 2014, and then advanced exponentially when Hutchinson raised the flag solo before Seattle’s playoff game with the Lions during the 2016 season. He said he was nearly moved to tears by the ovation he received.
“For the record, I did not want to leave Seattle,” Hutchinson declared, and that’s important to remember, with the perspective that comes only with the passage of more than a decade of time.
For some reason, the Seahawks did not give Hutchinson the same franchise tag that had kept Jones in tow (after the obligatory holdout) for so many years.
“I was 100 percent convinced I was going to follow the same route as Walt,” said Hutchinson, joking that he was “looking forward” to missing camp and then making the Pro Bowl like Jones did.
But Seattle instead opted to give Hutchinson the transition tag for 2006, which left him free to negotiate with other teams. Admittedly irked, Hutchinson signed an offer sheet with Minnesota for $49 million over seven years, with a $16 million signing bonus.
Here’s the ingenious part, as masterminded by the Vikings and Hutchinson’s agent, Tom Condon: The offer included a clause that required the entire contract to be guaranteed if Hutchinson was not the highest-paid lineman on his team — the so-called “poison pill,” now illegal in the NFL. The Seahawks would turn around and do the same thing to the Vikings to land wide receiver Nate Burleson, putting in a clause that guaranteed his $49 million contract if he played five or more games a season in the state of Minnesota.
Hutchinson knew the stipulation would end his Seattle career, because Jones’ average salary of $7.5 million was in excess of Hutchinson’s, and there was no way the Seahawks would guarantee all $49 million. The Seahawks declined to match, and lost an arbiter’s ruling when they requested a change in contract language.
“I understood it clearly, 100 percent,” Hutchinson said. “When I signed my name on the offer sheet, I knew exactly what was happening. I was not duped in any way.”
But he added, “At the end of the day, I didn’t have an option. It’s a business. I had to choose Door A, which I knew what was behind it, or Door B, which was closed and I didn’t know what was going to be there. I didn’t look back.”
It’s high time to put all that in the past and remember what Hutchinson, Seattle’s first-round draft pick in 2001, meant in a Seahawks era that saw them soar to new heights under coach Mike Holmgren. He and Jones anchored a superb line that helped Shaun Alexander thrive (including 1,880 rushing yards and an NFL-record 28 touchdowns in the Super Bowl year of 2005). Perhaps only Art Shell and Gene Upshaw of the Raiders are more renowned as a duo, though Jones and Hutchinson might have equaled them if their time together had continued beyond 2005.
“Walter was the best to ever do it,” Hutchinson said. “I thought we were pretty damned good. The whole line was pretty good.”
Hutchinson did more of the same in six seasons with the Vikings, where this time Adrian Peterson was the main beneficiary, including a 1,760-yard rushing season in 2008. The Vikings, with Brett Favre at quarterback, made it to the NFC Championship Game in 2009.
All told, Hutchinson was first-team All-Pro six times and a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s, which is why he is on the verge of Canton as one of 15 finalists for five spots in the Modern Era Hall of Fame Class of 2018. The 48-person selection committee, comprised of media members, will meet Saturday in Minneapolis to winnow the list, which leads to an excruciating process for the finalists, as Hutchinson explains:
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“They bring all 15 to the Super Bowl site, and then on Saturday — it’s really scientific — at 3 p.m. we’re told to be in our rooms. They’ll either knock on your door if you made it, or call if you don’t. If you had a million ways to come up with a way to do this, I don’t think you could come up with a more torturous way to find out.”
Hutchinson and his wife will fly out Thursday from Nashville, where he and his family settled after finishing his career in 2012 with the Tennessee Titans (he nearly signed with Seattle). Hutchinson now works full-time in the Titans’ scouting department.
NFL media sources believe Hutchinson — who is Hall of Fame eligible for the first time — has a strong chance to eventually be named, and sooner than later. But his chances of earning selection this year in his first crack is complicated by the fact that four other offensive linemen — including former Seahawks center Kevin Mawae, tackle Tony Boselli, guard Alan Faneca and tackle Joe Jacoby — also are finalists and could split votes. Furthermore, Jacoby is in his final year of eligibility and could get some sympathy votes.
If the knock on the door comes — and Hutchinson says that it better not be room service — he naturally would be thrilled beyond belief. If it’s the phone call instead, well, he would be philosophical.
“It’s not like we’re seeing who gets to jump out of a plane with a parachute or not,” he said. “I’m in good company with a bunch of legitimate candidates. We’re all driven guys, and we all want the legitimacy and closure that the Hall of Fame brings. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.”
It’s time for closure, as well, regarding the dark days of Hutchinson’s Seattle departure. The love he has for the Seahawks is genuine, and it should be given unreservedly to one of this town’s greatest players ever.