Adrian Peterson is a first-ballot Hall of Fame running back who was capable of dominating games during his prime with the Minnesota Vikings.
No matter how you feel about Peterson, there is no debating that fact.
There also is no debating the fact that one reason the 13-3 Vikings will play the Saints on Sunday in an NFC Divisional playoff game is because they were willing to jettison Peterson last spring. The Saints made the same decision as the Vikings, only in their case it was very easy.
One has to figure that Peterson will watch Sunday’s game wondering what would have happened if he had been able to remain with the Saints this season, or if he had long ago been willing to become a more complete running back for the Vikings.
The 32-year-old lasted only four games with the Saints before being traded to Arizona for a conditional draft pick. Peterson gained 81 yards on 27 rushing attempts and caught only two passes for 4 yards playing on a team that relies on its running backs to catch the ball as much as they do to run it.
That’s why it was so surprising that the Saints decided to sign Peterson to a two-year, $7 million contract in April. That came a month after the Vikings decided not to pick up an $18 million option on Peterson’s contract for 2017.
Peterson was never going to be a fit with the Saints or fit into a backfield that already had Mark Ingram. Peterson became an even worse fit when the Saints drafted Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara in the third round only a few days after signing the veteran.
There was the obligatory training camp story about how Peterson was becoming a more complete running back in New Orleans but nobody in Minnesota was fooled. We had read – or in some cases, written – that story countless times before. Peterson was going to catch passes, Peterson was going to be better in pass protection. It was nonsense.
Ingram finished the regular season with 1,124 rushing yards on 230 carries and 12 touchdowns and also caught 58 passes for 416 yards and was the target of 71 Drew Brees passes. Kamara gained 728 yards on 120 rushing attempts with eight touchdowns and caught 81 passes (100 targets) for 826 yards and five touchdowns.
Peterson finished with 529 rushing yards on 156 attempts with two touchdowns in 10 games between New Orleans and Arizona and caught 11 passes for 70 yards. Ingram and Kamara both exceeded Peterson’s single-season high for receptions (43 in 2009) by a substantial margin.
You knew Peterson’s time with the Saints was going to be limited when cameras caught him yelling at coach Sean Payton on the sideline during a season-opening loss to the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Peterson attempted to downplay the incident, but Payton wasn’t about to put up with that from a veteran player when he had two younger and better options.
Seeing Peterson lash out at Payton, provided confirmation to Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer that they had made the right move by saying goodbye to Peterson after 10 seasons in Minnesota.
Peterson is the Vikings’ all-time leading rusher with 11,747 yards; he set the single-game record for rushing yards (296) against San Diego in 2007; and became one of only seven running backs in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season when he did it in 2012. Remarkably that came after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee late in the 2011 season.
But all of those accomplishments didn’t mean Peterson was going to remain the ideal running back in a league where being able to do several things well is now a requirement.
Peterson led the NFL in rushing yards with 1,485 as recently as the 2015 season, helping lead the Vikings to the NFC North title. But it was clear by that point that moving on from him might by a wise move.
The Vikings were trying to build their offense around a young quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater and yet Peterson made his displeasure clear anytime he wasn’t handed the ball enough. Bridgewater was best working out of the shotgun; Peterson was best with his quarterback under center. Guess what adjustments
His issues with fumbling also continued as he lost three of seven during the regular season in 2015. It got worse in the postseason. Blair Walsh always will take the blame for the Vikings’ first-round playoff loss because of his missed field goal, but it was Peterson’s fourth-quarter fumble that led to the drive that resulted in Seattle kicking the go-ahead field goal.
By last season, Peterson simply could no longer stay healthy and, yet, seemed to want to remain in control of how things went for him. It actually made it very easy for the Vikings to say goodbye.
There were some who didn’t like it but, even if you remain a Peterson fan, you have to admit his departure was the best thing to happen to this offense. Dalvin Cook, the Vikings’ second-round pick who was lost early in the season to a torn ACL, is a far more complete running back than Peterson ever was during the course of his career.
The duo of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon might not get you out of your seat with their moves, but they are far more reliable and complete. And, most importantly, offensive coordinator Pat Shumur can focus on making the most of his personnel, including quarterback Case Keenum, without worrying about a sideline meltdown from an aging and temperamental star.
Call it a welcome subtraction.