It usually happens about once per offseason: A big-name free agent agrees to a contract with one team, then backs out and gets a better deal with another club. It was bound to happen this offseason, when the money was flying around and the players were scrambling from team to team in the frantic opening days of the free agent market. And when it did happen, the Minnesota Vikings were the beneficiary, setting the stage for an offseason of improvement in which the club has appeared to close the gap on the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.

The market opened with a handful of top cornerbacks available, even after Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson and Chris McAlister were tied down by their teams' franchise tags. The best cornerback left on the market, most executives around the league seemed to agree, was Antoine Winfield, the Buffalo Bills' former first-round draft choice. The New York Jets made an early move to take Winfield off the board, and got him to agree on the second day of free agency -- March 4 -- to a six-year, $30 million contract that included a $10 million signing bonus. The Jets were eager to get Winfield's signature on the deal and announce the addition at a news conference the following day.

But the other teams interested in Winfield, apparently including the Houston Texans and Vikings, didn't give up, and Winfield backed out of his agreement with the Jets and got on a plane to Minneapolis. On March 5, he agreed to a six-year, $34.8 million deal with the Vikings that included a $10.8 million signing bonus. This time, he didn't back out, and the Vikings had the shut-down cornerback they coveted.

The Vikings probably were due for some good luck after their 6-0 start to last season gave way to a 3-7 finish, and they were kept out of the playoffs by a miraculous final-play touchdown in an 18-17 loss at Arizona in the season's final game. The 28-yard touchdown catch by Arizona's Nathan Poole on a fourth-and-25 pass from quarterback Josh McCown doomed the Vikings to joining the 1978 Washington Redskins as the only NFL teams to miss the playoffs after starting a season 6-0 (those Redskins finished 8-8), and produced one of this offseason's most bizarre episodes. According to people who were in the room, the play was shown on a highlights package just before NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stood to address the owners at the annual league meeting. When he saw the play, Vikings owner Red McCombs began loudly berating Tagliabue from his seat, saying that Poole should have been ruled out of bounds, observers say. Tagliabue simply ignored the outburst and began his address to the owners.

This season's Vikings could give McCombs some more positive things to yell about, given their upgrades on defense. They got lucky again when USC defensive end Kenechi Udeze, the best pass rusher in the draft, fell to them for the 20th overall selection. Udeze originally was projected as a top-10 choice but plummeted because some teams were wary of a shoulder injury that he suffered last season, fearing that Udeze would have to undergo surgery for a torn labrum and could be sidelined into the season. Vikings officials say they believe that Udeze will be ready to play, though. If they're right, they'll have a difference-making pass rusher who transformed himself from an overweight defensive tackle entering college into a sleek end who torments quarterbacks and has learned to cause fumbles while generating sacks. Udeze would improve an already-solid defensive line.

The Vikings also got potential contributors during the draft in second-round linebacker Dontarrious Thomas and a pair of good fourth-round values, offensive tackle Nat Dorsey and running back Mewelde Moore.

Minnesota kept tight end Jim Kleinsasser off the market by signing him to a five-year, $15 million contract extension just before free agency. Coach Mike Tice made a good hire by replacing departed defensive coordinator George O'Leary with Ted Cottrell. Marcus Robinson gives quarterback Daunte Culpepper a capable wide receiver opposite Randy Moss, and fellow free-agent addition Steve Martin should fit into the defensive tackle rotation.

Division foes Chicago and Detroit also have had good offseasons. But the Vikings were closer to the Packers to begin with, and might be on at least even footing now.

Around the League

The Baltimore Ravens have been in contact with agent David Dunn regarding free agent quarterback Kerry Collins since learning that veteran backup Anthony Wright will have to undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. But the Ravens, like other teams, are convinced that Collins will sign a relatively lucrative contract with the Oakland Raiders.

The Ravens have a well-documented "in'' with Collins: Collins's former coach with the New York Giants, Jim Fassel, is serving as a consultant in Baltimore this season. But the Ravens are committed to Kyle Boller as their starter. General Manager Ozzie Newsome has told associates that the team has spent its allotted backup quarterback money on Wright, and any addition at the position will have to come for a minimum-salary deal. That probably leaves Kurt Warner and Kordell Stewart as the two most likely options for the Ravens.

Newsome has liked Stewart since the quarterback's days with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Stewart still is looking for work since being released by the Bears in March. Those in his camp have been deliberating about whether he should sign with Buffalo even though the Bills used a first-round draft choice on Tulane quarterback J.P. Losman and agreed to a revised contract with veteran Drew Bledsoe. The Ravens probably would be a better opportunity.

The Giants have appeared to be the front-runner to sign Warner when he's released by the St. Louis Rams after June 1. But other teams are in the mix, and the two-time league most valuable player might view being Boller's backup for a Super Bowl-caliber club as a better situation than being top draft choice Eli Manning's mentor for a prospective last-place team. Warner seems likely to sign a one-year contract in hopes of playing well enough to earn a better deal on the unrestricted free agent market next offseason.

The Ravens could pursue Tim Couch if he's released by the Cleveland Browns after June 1. But they would face competition from the Packers, who have been trying to trade for Couch for weeks. Ravens officials say they will wait until after Wright's surgery to decide whether to sign a quarterback, but he could be sidelined as long as six months.

It's unclear when Collins's situation with the Raiders will be resolved. The Raiders apparently are trying to juggle negotiations with Collins and their current starting quarterback, Rich Gannon. Gannon, the 2002 league MVP, would be in danger of being released if the Raiders sign Collins and Gannon refuses to reduce his $7 million salary for the 2004 season.

That could have a trickle-down effect. If he's released, Gannon perhaps would reunite with former Raiders coach Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers tried but failed earlier in the offseason to sign free agent Jeff Garcia (who ended up in Cleveland, putting Couch on the trading block) to compete with Brad Johnson for the starting job. Johnson could be pushed out in Tampa if the Buccaneers sign Gannon -- and immediately would become a top candidate for the Ravens if Baltimore still is looking for a quarterback. He is close to Ravens Coach Brian Billick from their days together in Minnesota. Just after the Vikings selected Johnson in the ninth round of the 1992 draft out of Florida State, he was picked up at the airport by the team's rookie tight ends coach -- Brian Billick.

Couch Files Grievance Against Browns

Couch has filed a grievance against the Browns through the NFL Players Association because the team has refused to allow him to train at the club's facilities while attempting to trade him. . . .

An executive for one NFL team said the Packers are asking for two draft choices, including a first-rounder, in exchange for disgruntled cornerback Mike McKenzie in a trade. Interested clubs seem willing to part with a single pick, perhaps a second- or third-rounder. . . .

The Dallas Cowboys might have competition in trying to sign quarterback Vinny Testaverde following his expected release by the New York Jets in June. The New England Patriots also could be in the running, executives from other teams say.

Kittner Getting His Cuts

One can only hope that Kurt Kittner packs lightly. In the past three weeks, the quarterback has been cut by the Atlanta Falcons, claimed off waivers by the Cincinnati Bengals, cut by the Bengals and now claimed off waivers by the Giants. His arrival with the Giants makes it even more difficult for quarterback Jesse Palmer, of "The Bachelor'' fame, to make it to training camp with the club. Palmer appears likely to be released as soon as the team adds Warner or another veteran in June. . . .

Quarterback Chris Redman has generated little interest on the free agent market, and now the reason is clear. When the Ravens contacted Dunn, who also represents Redman, they learned that Redman has undergone shoulder surgery and is unable to throw for teams. Baltimore doesn't seem interested in either of the former Ravens on the free agent market, Redman or Jeff Blake.