“It’s tough because I know this guy is a first-ballot Hall of Famer."
Peterson’s exit, coupled with the earlier release of Derrius Guice following his arrest on domestic violence charges, has all but overhauled the team’s rushing corps. The 35-year-old Petersen led the team in rushing the past two seasons and appeared to be the team’s surest offensive option at the start of the offseason. But as training camp progressed, his role seemed to diminish as the younger backs received more reps with the first-team offense.
Leading the group now is a pair of converted wide receivers in third-round rookie Antonio Gibson and free agent acquisition J.D. McKissic. The team also has Peyton Barber, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer whom Rivera has lauded for his physicality, and Bryce Love, a versatile back out of Stanford who spent his rookie season on injured reserve.
“We’re about to find out what our young players can do more so than anything else,” Rivera said. “It’s a young football team, and one of the things we have to find out is where we are with those guys.”
Rivera said he grappled with the decision for much of the past day or so and even awoke at 4:03 a.m. Friday uncertain of how he was going to inform Peterson, a player he described as “a tremendous professional.” He asked Peterson to see him when he reported to the team’s facility in the morning, and hours later, he began a speech that Peterson had heard before.
“Just normal routine — did my tests, went in and talked to him, and he was just like, ‘This is always tough,’ ” Peterson said in an interview. “When he said that, already I knew what it was. One thing you don’t want to hear is ‘This is always tough.’ ”
Rivera said he chose to make the release Friday, more than 24 hours before the league’s Saturday deadline to reduce rosters to 53 players. The reason, he said, was out of reverence. He wanted Peterson “to have his day” as opposed to being lumped in with dozens of other roster cuts over the weekend.
Peterson said he never saw it coming. He noticed his reps began to decline, but he expected that with a group of backs who were either new or recovering from a significant injury.
“But when the ones were called up or we did our team practice at the stadium, I was up with the ones and did two minute and all that,” he said. “So it was shocking to me, to say the least. It was shocking because I just didn’t see that sign of it being, ‘Okay, you’re going to be released.’ Maybe a diminished role within the offense. Maybe some games you’re used more, 15, 16 carries or whatever.
“But I didn’t expect to be released.”
Rivera often referred to Peterson as a tone-setter for Washington’s young offense and the team as a whole. As the coach sought to make his mark on the team and improve the franchise’s culture, he often pointed to Peterson and veteran linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. as the leaders of the team. After a practice midway through camp, Rivera lit into his players for failing to give the effort he expected, and he called out both Peterson and Davis as players who “do it the right way.”
But Peterson’s place within the offense became murky, especially as 22-year-old Gibson emerged.
Rivera stressed at the outset of camp that the team sought versatility across the board, from the offensive line to the defensive backs. Having running backs who can run inside and out, can move into the slot or even flex out wide as receivers provided additional options for offensive coordinator Scott Turner. The fit for Peterson, who is generally more of a power back, was unclear.
“It’s not that I didn’t fit in the system, because during training camp, I took snaps as well out of 21 personnel and ran routes and ran seam balls and hitches and slants,” he said. “I lined up and ran those things, too, and was effective in those roles. . . .
“It was just an unfortunate situation for me that they decided to go with the younger guys. I get that, but I still don’t understand how you let my ability get away.”
In his two years in Washington, Peterson totaled 1,940 rushing yards (4.2 yards per carry) to rank 11th among NFL backs in that span. He sits at No. 5 on the league’s all-time list with a career 14,216 rushing yards, needing only 1,132 to leap to third place, behind Emmitt Smith (18,355) and Walter Payton (16,726). Among the players with at least 2,500 career carries, Peterson is second in rushing average at 4.68 yards, behind Barry Sanders’ 4.99.
“The age, man. No matter what you do, when you hit 35, a lot of guys sit there and say, ‘He’s old and can’t do this, can’t do that.’ That’s not the case,” he said. “This is another opportunity for me to further [prove] that. It’s unfortunate that they let me go, but it’s their loss in my mind, and it’ll be another team’s gain.”
Peterson, who was in the last year of his contract with Washington, had hoped the last stop in his career would be Washington. He was encouraged by the new coaching staff and believed the franchise was headed in the right direction. He envisioned staying for a couple of more years, if not longer.
“But things don’t always work out the way that you might envision it,” he said. “You got to adjust on the fly sometimes.”
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