When Vikings ‘target,' they put on the press

Rick Spielman (Kevin Brown/Viking Update)

The Vikings have made only one outside free-agent signing so far, but they proved again that they can be convincing when given the chance. It happened eight years ago with Antoine Winfield and the team once again pulled a free agent out of the clutches of another team.

At a time when cloak-and-dagger movies are on a high note, The Carlson Covenent may not carry the same weight as Gone With the Winfield, but it ain't bad.

For those who have forgotten the Antoine Winfield signing saga, it reads like a gritty Studs Terkel or John Grisham novel. Winfield had visited the Vikings and had broken the "don't let him leave town" model that confident organizations have. When the Vikings have been interested in a free agent, Winter Park has become the Hotel California – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

In March 2004, a young, wide-eyed Antoine Winfield had visited the Vikings as a free agent. He was impressed with what the Vikings offered, but wanted to take in another recruiting visit. He went to visit with the Jets and the team made an offer he and agent were willing to accept. Then The Tice Identity was born.

In a story best told when cigar smoking was allowed at Bunny's Bar & Grill in St. Louis Park and more than a couple of beverages are in the rearview mirror, the Winfield signing is a movie script in the making.

The Cliff's Notes version is this: Winfield and his wife Erniece are in the Jets facility. He's signed … except pen hasn't hit paper. After Winfield doesn't answer his phone that includes an increased Vikings offer, Tice suggests to pull out Winfield's personal kryptonite. His wife. It's an "all-in, chip-and-a-chair" gambit. The story has emerged in dribs and drabs over the years about the particulars (because I love a good conspiracy theory), but the gist is that the Vikings played the family-values card of the virtues of the Midwest as opposed to the megalopolis nature of New York. They convinced Erniece that the Jets weren't the right choice "family-wise" – straight out of The Godfather – at least in the Bunny's version.

Quietly, a mysterious limousine pulls out in front of the Jets headquarters and silently sits in wait. As documents are being formalized copied, collated and bound to finalize his contract with the Jets, the Winfields step outside the team complex, hop in the limo and are gone with Keyser Soze-style "poof."

Tice contacted a Maryland "associate" from the horse racing industry who happened to have a private plane (imagine the theme song from The Godfather playing in the background). The limousine brings the Winfields to a private airport where the private plane streaks them back to Minnesota. Eight years later, the Winfields haven't left – checking into the Hotel Minnesota.

The signing of John Carlson may not live up to the biggest Vikings free agent coup, but it compares.

Carlson first visit, in his first career opportunity as an unrestricted free agent, was scheduled to be with the Kansas City Chiefs. He flew to Kansas City. One can only imagine the barbeque spread or perhaps the best steak of his life was waiting for him. But Carlson never got to that meeting with the Chiefs.

The Vikings made the commitment necessary meet the contract expectations of Carlson and his people and the Chiefs meeting was aborted before it ever began, as Carlson headed to his native Minnesota. He was close, but never actually got into the clutches of the Hotel Kansas City.

"I was in the city, but I did not meet with the Chiefs," Carlson said.

The difference? Rick Spielman, wearing "the family ring" in his capacity as free-agent Godfather, made Carlson an offer he couldn't refuse.

"Rick came forward with a commitment that no other team had showed – a level of interest that was unparalleled," Carlson said. "It was the type of thing I couldn't turn down. It's exciting to be a part of what they're building here."

Carlson, a Litchfield, Minn., native, said that his own family commitments were a part of his decision-making process, but not the overriding determinant in whether he came back to the old neighborhood or not.

"It was a factor," Carlson said about returning to Minnesota. "I'm excited. I've got family ties here and a lot of friends here. But it wasn't the only factor. I wouldn't have come back here if I didn't think the Vikings had a great thing going and a chance to be really special on the offensive side of the ball. That's something I want to be a part of. The family thing was a factor, but not the primary factor."

The reason Spielman gave for wanting Carlson with the Vikings is that he is building a young offensive crew – Christian Ponder as its new face, Adrian Peterson as it's enforcer and Percy Harvin as consigliore. It's part of his three-, four- or five-year plan for success.

"The one thing we're trying to definitely do is try to get as many playmaking-type skill-position guys as we can around our young quarterback and John definitely fits that bill," Spielman said.

While it may not compare with the Winfield Affair, the Carlson Caper may get a similar growing legend as time goes by and the Vikings talk more about the one that didn't get away.


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.


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