GLENDALE, Ariz. — Running all across the State Farm Stadium grass, Adrian Peterson lived out his revival Sunday afternoon. A month ago football seemed done with him. He might be a future Hall of Famer, but at 33, he was seen as too old and damaged to be a star running back anymore. Then came injuries to multiple Washington Redskins running backs, a phone call to Peterson, an opportunity and a chance to start again. And in the Redskins’ first game, he became Adrian Peterson once more.
He dashed through holes in the Arizona Cardinals’ defense, scampering past tacklers and rumbling over linebackers. He skipped. He stopped. He spun around reaching hands. Then, finally, after a 24-6 victory that felt much bigger than the score suggested, he leaned against a lectern in an interview room far beneath the stadium stands and smiled.
“I’m just doing my job,” he said.
This was more than a routine punching of a clock. On Aug. 20, Peterson was, in football terms, “on the street,” a man without a team and perhaps without any hope of one. The Redskins offered him a lifeline, and in his first NFL game since November, he gave them a piece they needed: a running back who can bull through defenses, controlling the game and providing much-needed toughness.
He had 96 yards rushing against the Cardinals, the last team for which he played. He had 70 more yards receiving and also passed Marshall Faulk and Jim Brown to move into 10th place on the NFL’s all-time rushing leaders list. At a time when Washington needed someone to be dominant, he was as powerful as the team could have hoped.
The Redskins have been a disappointment the past few seasons. A surprise playoff run in 2015 has been clouded by 7-9 and 8-7-1 seasons, and fan interest is low enough that Sunday’s home opener against Indianapolis might not be sold out. Inside the Washington locker room, a quiet confidence has emerged as players believe they have a strong offensive line and defensive front. Owner Daniel Snyder boasted two weeks ago that new quarterback Alex Smith is “a breath of fresh air” at the position.
But until Sunday, they didn’t know what they had, exactly. Then Peterson started running through tackles and Smith mixed handoffs to Peterson and Chris Thompson with quick screens to those same men as well as tight end Jordan Reed. A defensive line, much maligned last year for being the worst in the NFL against the run, quashed a Cardinals running attack that was supposed to be a strength.
In a dominant first half, the Redskins put together three massive touchdown drives. The first, which went 11 plays for 80 yards, ended in a Smith touchdown pass to Thompson. The second lasted 15 plays and chewed up 73 yards before Peterson scored on a one-yard run. The third stretched 92 yards on 10 plays, culminating with a Smith pass to Reed in the end zone. Squeezed in between were two fizzled Cardinals possessions that lasted three plays each and ended in punts.
At halftime Washington held a 21-0 lead, had outgained Arizona 261 yards to 37, and held on to the ball for 22:07 of the half’s 30 minutes.
“I think it was a total team effort,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said.
For the day, the Redskins had 30 first downs, 182 yards rushing and 247 yards passing. The Cardinals had just 213 total yards.
After the game, Washington’s defensive players expressed frustration that late lapses after the game was out of hand kept them from the franchise’s first shutout since 1991.
“We could have had something special,” cornerback Josh Norman said with some exasperation as he stood in the locker room.
But this was a small quibble in what was in many ways a statement game. Gruden had lost his first four openers as Washington coach, mostly because of a mix of turnovers and mistakes. This time, his team played what was nearly a perfect half of football, and the quiet optimism that has simmered around the team seemed to boom in the locker room as players smiled and dressed, certain their belief was fulfilled.
Smith — whom Gruden called “sensational” Sunday — later said the Cardinals were an extreme test, a defense that is aggressive and wanted to stop Washington’s running game at the start.
“We were able to finish off some drives in the red zone, which was big,” Smith said. “So it was nice to get into a rhythm because we haven’t had a ton of gamelike experience. In fact, none of us [have played] together [in preseason games]. Really only in practice, so it was fun.”
When they came off the field with their first opening victory under Gruden, the team gathered in the locker room as Peterson was presented with the game ball. He wasn’t overwhelmed: “I’m not an emotional guy,” he said. Still, he was moved.
“The Redskins saw [the potential],” he said. “Other teams had the opportunity, but for whatever reason things didn’t work out.”
Some time after, he stood near the front entrance of the locker room, grinning. He wore a gray warmup suit and held a travel bag. He sighed.
“It felt great,” he said about getting the game ball. Then he chuckled.
“Marshall Faulk and Jim Brown?” he said. “Wow.”
It seemed as good a statement as any on the day he came back to be Adrian Peterson again.
Read more on the Redskins and the NFL:
Game summary: Redskins 24, Cardinals 6