Shaun Alexander and Steve Hutchinson were free agents. Both were 28. Hutch had completed his five-year rookie contract, and, if re-signed, his cap cost could double. Alexander was already expensive. The Seahawks had franchised him in 2004. Seattle could have signed both players, and attempted to, but would have tied up much of their available cap. Tim Ruskell was aggressively targeting Julian Peterson and John Abraham. He wanted Hutch, but he wanted to improve the Seahawks too. Signing Alexander tied up $5.9 million against the cap.
Hutch expected offensive tackle money. The market for guards was soft. Hutchinson was the fifth highest paid offensive guard in 2005, but cost only $3.5 million against the cap. Even Larry Allen, the league's highest paid guard, only cost $6.5 million. Only three guards total cost more than $5 million against the cap.
Running backs were much more expensive. Eight cost more than five million against the cap in 2005, and Edgerrin James cost over $9 million. The league perceived running back to be a premium position, on par with wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback. If Seattle put the franchise tag on Hutchinson, his salary would reflect the salaries of all offensive linemen and not just guards. The Lions placed the tag on Jeff Backus in 2006. His base salary was $6.98 million. If Seattle franchised Hutchinson, it would have had $25 million in cap room dedicated to Hutch, Alexander, Walter Jones and Matt Hasselbeck.
Ruskell did something he has done many times since: Let the market to set a player's value. Placing the transition tag on Hutchinson allowed him to negotiate with other teams and Seattle the right to match. It avoided guaranteeing Hutchinson $6.98 million, and, in Ruskell's eyes, enabled negotiations towards a long-term contract. Ruskell was willing to spend big to retain his Pro Bowl guard. His hope was he wouldn't have to. His hope was that he could sign Hutchinson, but structure his contract so that Seattle could still sign Peterson, Abraham or both.
Early March, and shortly after the league ratified a new collective bargaining agreement, Minnesota offered Hutchinson the largest contract in league history for an offensive guard. It was a bold move made audacious by a now notorious poison pill clause. The clause stipulated that if Hutchinson was not his team's highest paid offensive lineman at any time after the first year, that his entire contract was guaranteed.
If Seattle wanted to match Minnesota's offer, it would not only need to match the Vikings unprecedented offer, it would be forced to guarantee Hutchinson's entire salary. Peyton Manning was the league's most expensive player and his contract guaranteed only $34.5 million. Matching Minnesota meant guaranteeing Hutchinson a staggering $49 million. Hutch would cost $13 million against the cap in 2006, forcing Seattle to forget Peterson and Abraham. Ruskell, supported by Paul Tagliabue and the NFL, contested the poison-pill clause, even restructured Walter Jones contract, but arbiter Stephen Burbank ruled in the Vikings favor. Seattle would either ruin their cap or let Hutchinson walk.
The deadline passed midnight of March 20, 2006, and Steve Hutchinson became a Minnesota Viking. Tim Ruskell fell on the wrong side of history. He attempted to make his Super Bowl losing team a Super Bowl winner. Instead, he lost an irreplaceable piece, alienated his coach, and began the Seahawks slow burn towards rebuilding.