What If... the Seahawks Franchise Tagged Steve Hutchinson?

Seattle had an opportunity to retain the best guard in the NFL at the time, but general manager Tim Ruskell made a huge gaffe by choosing not to use the franchise tag in a move that may have cost the team a shot at another Super Bowl appearance.
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Running an NFL franchise isn’t an easy task, as general managers are responsible for everything from drafting players to making difficult choices on which players to re-sign and which ones to let walk in free agency.

Back in 2006, the Seahawks were coming off the most successful season in franchise history, as coach Mike Holmgren led the team to a 13-win regular season and their first-ever Super Bowl berth. Though Seattle came up just short in a 21-10 loss to Pittsburgh at Ford Field, the organization believed the pieces were in place to make it back to the big game.

But before the Seahawks could embark on another potential title run, general manager Tim Ruskell faced a plethora of challenging roster decisions. Several star players were set to become unrestricted free agents, including running back Shaun Alexander, who earned 2005 NFL MVP honors after rushing for over 1,800 yards and scoring an NFL record 27 rushing touchdowns.

Along with Alexander, standout left guard Steve Hutchinson also needed a contract extension. Widely regarded as the best guard in the NFL, the 28-year old had appeared in three straight Pro Bowls and earned First-Team All-Pro accolades for the second time in three seasons in 2005.

Playing alongside future Hall of Fame tackle Walter Jones, Hutchinson and “Big Walt” formed one of the best guard/tackle tandems in NFL history, paving the way for Alexander to rush for over 1,100 yards and score 87 rushing touchdowns from 2001 to 2005.

With improving Seattle’s defense a top priority, Ruskell made the controversial choice to use the transition tag on Hutchinson, creating the opportunity for other teams to negotiate with him. The Vikings immediately pounced, offering him a seven-year, $49 million contract that the Seahawks ultimately decided not to match.

Seattle returned to the playoffs each of the next two seasons, but its title window slammed shut after bowing out in the Divisional Round both times. Which begs the question – would things have played out differently if the team applied the franchise tag to Hutchinson instead?

Going into the 2006 offseason, Seattle intended to retain Alexander and Hutchinson, but Ruskell also planned to be aggressive courting veterans to help bolster the defense during free agency. Already dealing with salary cap limitations, trying to extend both players while also adding a few outside free agents may not have been financially feasible.

Under such circumstances, nobody would’ve blamed Ruskell if he opted to let Alexander leave. Though he’d rushed for over 7,500 yards over the previous five seasons and shattered several team records, he was going to turn 29 years old before the start of the 2006 season, making it irresponsible to give him a lucrative long-term deal.

While it wouldn’t have been a popular move with the fan base at the time, the Seahawks could’ve drafted a running back and/or potentially found a cheaper, younger alternative in free agency while keeping their upper echelon offensive line intact by signing Hutchinson to a mega deal.

Instead, the Seahawks foolishly handed Alexander an eight-year, $62 million extension, illogically chose to use the transition tag rather than the franchise tag on Hutchinson, and spent remaining cap space on linebacker Julian Peterson and receiver Nate Burleson in free agency.

The choice to extend Alexander proved to be an unmitigated disaster, as he lasted only two more injury-riddled seasons in Seattle. After rushing for 1,612 yards and 11 touchdowns in 23 games during the 2006 and 2007 seasons, the Seahawks unceremoniously released him in April 2008.

At least Peterson earned his money during three seasons as a Seahawk, recording 249 tackles, 24.5 sacks, and three interceptions while making three Pro Bowl squads. Burleson’s special teams contributions offset the fact he produced just 192 receiving yards in his first season with Seattle and missed all but one game in 2008 thanks to an ACL tear.

Looking back at all of these choices more than a decade later, it’s mind-boggling Ruskell absurdly used the less-restrictive transition tag rather than the franchise tag on Hutchinson. It would’ve cost the Seahawks only $600,000 more to franchise him and interested teams would’ve been required to give up two first-round picks as compensation if they signed him to an offer sheet.

With such a small financial discrepancy between those two restrictive tags, Ruskell also could’ve still given Alexander that ludicrous extension if he really wanted to. And the star back would’ve benefited from having Hutchinson opening up running lanes in front of him, which might have prolonged his effectiveness into his 30s and made the contract less of an albatross.

But in reality, Ruskell disrespected Hutchinson by trying to low-ball him and opened the door for the Vikings to give him an offer he couldn’t refuse that included a dreaded “poison pill” clause. If the Seahawks wanted to match the offer, they’d either have to make him the highest paid lineman on the team annually or fully guarantee his $49 million salary.

Seattle tried to counter by restructuring Jones’ contract to drop his annual salary below $6.7 million, but a court ruling favored Hutchinson and the Vikings, indicating the re-worked deal came too late. Unwilling to fully guarantee his contract, Ruskell opted to let him go, a decision that would haunt the franchise for several years.

While Hutchinson earned First-Team All-Pro recognition in each of his first three seasons in Minnesota, Seattle struggled to find a replacement next to Jones, rotating between the likes of Floyd Womack, Rob Sims, and Mike Wahle at left guard. None of those players proved to be a long-term answer as the Seahawks deteriorated from a perennial playoff team into a four-win outfit in 2008.

This decline was further facilitated by other questionable decisions made by Ruskell, who gave big free agent contracts to aging players such as Deion Grant and Brian Russell before finally being replaced by Ruston Webster during the 2009 season.

Retaining Hutchinson alone would not have been enough to prevent Seattle’s eventual regression, but the team certainly could’ve made another Super Bowl in short order with his presence on the left side of the line.

After barely sneaking into the playoffs at 9-7, the Seahawks nearly upset the Bears on the road in the Divisional Round in 2006. With Hutchinson in the lineup, Holmgren’s squad may have been able to seal the deal before overtime, as Seattle had the ball past midfield late in regulation.

Loaded with playoff experience and a proven quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck, if the Seahawks would’ve reached the Super Bowl as the Bears did that year, they would have been a far greater threat to Peyton Manning and the Colts, potentially bringing a Lombardi Trophy to the Pacific Northwest seven years earlier.