Every NFL team tries to address its deficiencies in the draft and free agency. The difference between the successful teams and the unsuccessful is how well they evaluate talent and, at times, even take risks. The Vikings are looking to build an eventual Super Bowl contender with the core component parts they have and looking to find the missing pieces of the puzzle through free agency and the draft.
History can be told in the NFL in the matter of two or three years. We can already assess the role Brett Favre played in the history of the Vikings – from the highs of 2009 to the ebb of the tide in the Bountygate-infected NFC Championship Game to the malaise of 2010 that resulted in the hiring and firing of Randy Moss and the firing of Brad Childress. Every team has a history that can be defined in the long-term and short-term.
This is tale of two franchises. Both identified a need and tried to address it as best they could. Both had long-term and short-term issues with the position in question. One succeeded and won a title. One has failed and is still trying to recover. Some teams guess right and trust their instincts. Others fail and throw away good money after bad.
Two of those opposite-ended franchises are the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks. Both identified a problem position and tried to address it. One succeeded masterfully. One has failed miserably. This is their story.
On Friday, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees set an NFL record with his five-year, $100 million contract that had $60 million of the deal guaranteed – an amount $10 million more than the highest previous guaranteed contracts signed by 2010 first overall draft pick Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams and the Buffalo Bills’ free-agent deal with Mario Williams when free agency opened in March.
What makes the Brees signing so interesting is that, when the Saints signed him in 2006, they were the only team willing to take a risk on him. Brees was a lame duck QB in San Diego following the 2005 season. The Chargers had drafted Eli Manning. Brees was their starter, but the handwriting was on the wall, even if Manning was only trade bait.
San Diego and the New York Giants swung a blockbuster trade in which the Chargers sent Manning to New York and the Giants used the fourth pick in the draft to select Philip Rivers, who, along with a pair of premium draft picks, was traded to San Diego. Brees had one year left on his deal and, after putting together his best season to date, was franchised in 2005. He had another solid season, but, in the season finale, suffered a severe shoulder injury that many thought was career-threatening. That may have been the reason Brees and his agent held out for guaranteed money in the contract that was signed on Friday.
When Brees became a free agent back then, only two teams expressed an interest – Miami and New Orleans. Miami opted to trade a second-round draft pick to the Vikings to land Daunte Culpepper. Brees signed a team-friendly deal with the Saints that would only pay off if he was among the elite QBs in the NFL.
The Saints were really in no position to bargain. The previous year, they had played every game of the 2005 season on the road because New Orleans had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. When the 2006 season began, Brees was viewed as a savior. Even four years later when the Saints beat the Vikings on their way to a Super Bowl title, much of the poorer sections of the city were desolate – never repaired or recovered from the hurricane.
Brees was front and center in the emotional recovery process. He was the new QB in town for a Saints-loving fan base that needed something to bring them out of their collective depression. Brees did that and will forever be a fixture in the city. Why? Because after years of wasting time and money on the quarterback position, Brees was the man who finally replaced Archie Manning.
Quarterbacks in New Orleans had come and gone. Some were fossils at the end of their careers. Others were young talent that, to varying extents, enjoyed some success, but not enough to ever make the Saints a playoff contender on a regular basis. Who did the Saints try in the post-Archie era? There was former Raider Ken Stabler, former Jet Richard Todd, unproven Dave Wilson, unproven Bobby Hebert, former Viking Wade Wilson, former Ram Jim Everett, former Redskin Heath Shuler, unproven Billy Joe Tolliver, former Bengal Jeff Blake and unproven Aaron Brooks. Of the group, only Hebert and Blake had enjoyed any sustained success. It was a no-man’s land. The Saints took a chance on Brees and it paid off and, in the end, Brees got paid off for delivering on his first New Orleans contract.
On the other end of the needs-filling spectrum are the Seahawks. It can be argued that Seattle has never had a truly great wide receiver after Steve Largent. A fourth-round pick by the expansion Seahawks in 1976, he spent 14 years with the team and became a local legend. He had some big seasons and set the benchmark by which others would follow, despite most of his career being played for non-playoff teams that struggled to find their identity. But finding “the next Largent” has proved difficult – and some can successfully argue, has never even been approached.
In the early 1990s, that guy was supposed to be Brian Blades. He eeked out four 1,000-yard seasons (by surpluses of 86, 63, three and one yard), but history doesn’t remember him as anything more than a No. 1 receiver for a non-championship team. Next was Joey Galloway, who ended up getting traded to Dallas for two first-round picks – absurd in this era of the NFL. But the trade of Galloway started a franchise malady at wide receiver that has dogged the team since.
Former Colt Sean Dawkins gave his best shot to be the “next Largent” and was followed by Seattle draft picks Darrell Jackson and Koren Robinson – neither of whom set a standard that could reach big enough heights. Their frustration at not getting an elite receiver has set the Seahawks off the hook in poor financial decisions.
In 2006, stinging from the Vikings dropping a “poison-pill” contract on Seattle in order to make sure they signed Steve Hutchinson, Seattle retaliated with a seven-year, $49 million offer sheet to Vikings restricted free agent Nate Burleson. His contract included language that said if he played more than four games in the State of Minnesota at any time during the contract, the remainder of the deal was guaranteed. The Vikings could have matched the contract. They didn’t want to. Let Seattle have him.
In four years with Seattle, he caught 136 passes for 1,758 yards and 13 touchdowns (an average of 34 catches for 440 yards and four touchdowns). It was money wasted. But, like the New Orleans QB job, it wasn’t done.
In 2006, Seattle believed it had the smartest guys in the room and, when Deion Branch was holding out from the Patriots in a contract dispute, the Seahawks traded their first-round pick in the 2007 draft to New England for Branch – then signed him to a six-year, $39 million contract. In four years with Seattle, he missed 17 games due to injury and caught 178 passes for 2,235 yards and 14 touchdowns – an average of 45 catches for 559 yards and less than four touchdowns a year. Once again, big money for little return.
With Burleson and Branch already bleeding the franchise dry in 2009, the Seahawks – perhaps still resentful of the Vikings in the Hutchinson deal – outbid the Vikings for wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. He was signed to a five-year, $40 million contract and played just one season in Seattle, collecting $15 million of his contract.
By 2010, all three were gone and the Seahawks swallowed hard and went with former Detroit retread Mike Williams as their new go-to guy and used a second-round draft pick on Notre Dame wide receiver Golden Tate. Williams has since been released and Tate has yet to show he’s NFL-ready.
In 2011, the Seahawks signed Sidney Rice to a five-year, $41 million contract. In his first season with Seattle, he played in nine games, caught 32 passes for 484 yards and two touchdowns. His touchdown total was the same as the number of his shoulders that were surgically repaired.
Two franchises. Two histories of troubles at certain positions. The Saints made their decision at quarterback and have a Lombardi Trophy to show for it. The Seahawks have failed and have a lot of big check stubs to show for it.
As the Vikings try to build a Super Bowl contender, they do so with some sore spots that need addressing. They have made their best effort to address them. Will their results be in the form of New Orleans, which one a title based largely on free agent signings? Or will they be like Seattle, which has floundered as a team because of the salary cap space squandered trying to address the wide receiver position? Only time will tell, but history is short-term in the NFL, so we will know soon enough.
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.