Minnesota whisks him away on private jet

Updated: March 5, 2004, 11:06 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Former Bills cornerback Antoine Winfield has only intercepted one pass in his last 37 games, but the biggest interception of his life involves the Minnesota Vikings.

Winfield was wined and dined Wednesday and Thursday and all but signed by the New York Jets to a six-year, $30 million contract, but abruptly backed out of the deal and flew to Minneapolis via private jet.

Friday, the day the Jets were prepared to introduce him at a news conference, he agreed to a $34.8 million contract with the Vikings that included a whopping $12.8 million signing bonus, $2.8 million more than the Jets were offering.

Wearing a Vikings cap, Winfield said Friday from Minnesota that it just didn't work out with the Jets, with whom he visited Wednesday on the first day of free agency.

"When it came down to it, I just wasn't ready. I didn't want to rush," Winfield said, adding that he had promised Vikings coach Mike Tice that he would visit Minnesota before making a decision.

Sources said there were personal reasons, including his wife's reluctance to live on Long Island, for his decision to jilt the Jets.

When asked what made him decide on the Vikings, Winfield said, "once we got off the plane, I seen the snow and I was like, 'this is home.' "

Winfield, considered the top cornerback who didn't have the franchise tag, will make $12.5 million this year, including $1.65 million base salary and a $100,000 workout bonus.

The 26-year-old was a first-round pick of the Bills. He tackles as well as he covers. Because he doesn't get thrown on too much, Winfield had only six interceptions during his Bills career.

Winfield lacks prototypical cornerback stature but, at 5-feet-9 and 180 pounds, plays bigger than his size and is known for his aggressive approach. His one shortcoming is a lack of big plays, as evidenced by his interception total, but that didn't seem to scare off any of his suitors.

Tice said signing Winfield was one of his two goals heading into free agency. The other, re-signing tight end Jim Kleinsasser, was accomplished Tuesday.

"Some might say (the goal) was to sign a corner but really it wasn't," Tice said. "It was to sign Antoine Winfield, that was the goal."

The franchises that liked Winfield in free agency pointed out that opponents didn't often throw his way but, the fact is, the former Ohio State star does not have good hands and does not often jump in front of a pass route. The 23rd overall player chosen in the 1999 draft, Winfield has 409 tackles, one sack and 60 passes defensed.

He has started in 49 of his 63 appearances.

Minnesota hasn't had a shut-down corner for more than a decade, said Tice, who first joined the Vikings in 1992 as a player. He said Winfield will add to an already young and talented defense and "hopefully put us over the hump defensively."

"I know they were one play away from making the playoffs last year," Winfield said. "Hopefully with my addition, I can get them to the next level."

ESPN.com senior writers John Clayton and Len Pasquarelli contributed to this report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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