Age hasn’t robbed Peterson of that initial awe. He’s destined to have that rare athletic-until-death body, similar to Herschel Walker, who remains a physical specimen at 56. Peterson came to Redskins Park on Monday, wowed the team during a workout and made another freakish impression during his first practice Tuesday. It’s why this looks like an encouraging emergency signing. And it’s why you should be scared as hell of a possible letdown.
He looks like the machine his father nicknamed All Day. He runs like All Day in a controlled, practice setting. He destroys agility and conditioning drills like All Day. But he hasn’t been that guy in three years. And despite all mesmerizing appearances, the key for Peterson to last a little longer in the NFL probably doesn’t involve returning to his old form. It’s about adapting from superstar to valuable reserve, about trying to become more like Vernon Davis in Washington.
As much as Peterson wants to defy the odds, the reality is that no NFL team will have the patience to let him try to do so, at least not until Peterson shows he can add value in a lesser role. Coach Jay Gruden doesn’t need All Day to come in and rescue his injury-depleted running back corps. He needs a player off the street to fit in, take advantage of whatever opportunities he’s given and add a little of the electricity that the group lacks without rookie Derrius Guice.
Gruden needs Half Day. Or pick part of a day: morning, afternoon or evening. Whatever Peterson can give, offer it with maximum enthusiasm and accept that limitation is now a part of the deal. If Peterson can learn to thrive in that kind of role, he can be a valuable role player who rushes for, maybe, 500 to 700 yards and adds something to a rotation of backs that includes Rob Kelley, Samaje Perine and Chris Thompson. If he can’t, he will be out of the league again.
That’s the situation. Peterson can seduce you with his remarkable fitness level from time to time. He has at least one ridiculous performance in him; he had games of 134 and 159 yards in Arizona last season. But while it’s fine to hope he can reverse his decline, it’s foolish to expect it.
It’s slightly different for Peterson. He was grounded but still defiant as he spoke to Washington reporters for the first time. He talked about coming here to win the starting job. He didn’t mention specific expectations, but he refused to put limitations on what he can accomplish. He’s competing — for his place on this team and in a league he once dominated — and he won’t change his thinking until he’s forced to change. That’s the proper approach, as long as he’s prepared to scale down his expectations. At this moment, no one can forecast if he is capable of such a thing.
He wasn’t capable of adjusting last season, which led to a quick exit from New Orleans. He received ample opportunity in Arizona — more than 21 carries per game in six outings — but the Cardinals were an injured mess by then. Now, after a long offseason in which he had to wait for preseason injuries to get a job, he has been humbled. But he’s still used to being a headliner.
“It shows me people don’t really know about football,” Peterson said of his doubters. “I feel like people that know the game of football know different situations a player might be in. So when people go back and say, ‘Oh, [3.4] yards per carry,’ there’s a lot that contributes to that as well. I just brush it off.”
Later, Peterson said: “I can give a lot. I really believe that.”
He’s no fool, though. He recognizes the entire league passed on him until now. He has gone from one of the NFL’s great wonders to an aging star stuck in his ways. He knows he must prove himself. The conflict could be over how he proves himself. He wants to do a lot. But the goal should be to do what’s required, which could be a little at first, and wait to receive the opportunity to do more. Is he ready for that? Not yet. But Peterson was reflective about his long wait for a job.
“It was rough, don’t get me wrong, because I’m human,” Peterson said. “I know what I have left in the tank, but ultimately, I just really sat back and appreciated. I’ve seen so many people deal with way worse. I’ve been blessed to have this type of career I’ve had, and I’m blessed now to continue it.”
Doug Williams, Washington’s personnel head honcho, joked about Peterson when asked the obligatory question about what he has left in the tank.
“I don’t know what he has left in the tank, but what I saw yesterday was a lot of fuel in the tank,” Williams said of Peterson’s workout.
In other words, the skill and the will remain. Peterson is still a sports car, and he still thinks of himself as a sports car, and he still trains like a sports car. But can he run like one for the better part of 16 games? He hasn’t done so since 2015. And that’s why Gruden and the team are in “We’ll see” mode.
“When you see him strike through those holes and you see him hit the hole downhill and pop out on the other side, he looked good,” Washington linebacker Mason Foster said. “I know it’s practice. I know it’s fresh legs or whatever you want to call it. But at the end of the day, it’s Adrian Peterson, man, and he still looks like Adrian Peterson to me. So we’ll see how it goes.”
Can he look like Adrian Peterson and be satisfied playing a LeGarrette Blount role? That is the intrigue of Peterson’s emergency signing in Washington. And that probably will be the key to him succeeding in this situation and for what’s left of his career.
Peterson’s life is no longer a superstar experiment. It’s not about stretching the limits of what he can do. It’s about finding a tidy space in which he can contribute.
For one of the game’s greatest running backs, the assignment is tricky and perhaps cruel. The man who once did the extraordinary now must learn to master being ordinary.
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