Peterson is 34, entering his 13th NFL season. On the 149 previous game days on which he was healthy and eligible, he played. On Sunday, he was ready to start his second season with the Washington Redskins, ready to face the Philadelphia Eagles. And he was scratched.
Put the math to the side for a second. For a guy whose blazer measurements have probably already been sent to Canton, Ohio, there’s an emotional element to this that comes first.
“Of course it’s not a role I want,” Peterson said to a bank of cameras and microphones following Washington’s 32-27 loss. “I’m 13 years in, and I’ve still got it. I’ve shown that, of course. I can play the game.
“But at the end of the day, I’m not the owner. I’m just a player. So when they call me up, they call me up. I’ll be ready to play. And if for whatever reason I’m not playing, I can’t control that. So I don’t know what to tell you or what to say.”
Thus, it’s prudent to turn to Gruden. The coach can clearly justify this on a given Sunday, because the team is committed to second-year man Derrius Guice to be the featured back, and he needs pure bodies to play special teams — particularly in punt coverage, which a player of Peterson’s stature would never be asked to do.
And yet listen to Gruden outline exactly what it would take to get Peterson dressed on game day should Guice, third-down back Chris Thompson and special teams contributor Wendell Smallwood all be healthy. Here comes the math.
“He’s a first- and second-down back,” Gruden said. “So is Derrius. So, really, what do we have? About 20 first downs a game. Probably eight of those are passes, 12 of those might be runs, and Derrius can handle those 12. So if we have a game where we think we can run the ball 55 times in a game in an I-formation, then sure, I’ll get him up.”
Did you catch that sarcasm from the coach? No? Let’s spell it out: Washington has run the ball 55 or more times exactly once in the past 60 years. Not to put words into Gruden’s mouth, but here are some others he might have said instead: “It ain’t happening.”
There was a way to make this all go away, to make it a footnote going forward rather than a driving story line that could upset the balance in the locker room, and that was to beat the Eagles on Sunday.
Washington, as you know by now, could have done just that, after leading 17-0 in the second quarter. Who needs Peterson when rookie wideout Terry McLaurin can stretch the field and veteran quarterback Case Keenum has the savvy to keep both plays and drives alive?
But how do you milk a lead like that? You run the football. Behind a suspect offensive line, Guice couldn’t do it. After Washington took that massive advantage, Guice carried just four times. His output on those chew-up-the-clock carries: two yards. Total rushing yards for Washington on Sunday: 28. Times Washington failed to reach that total in 2018, when Peterson was active for all 16 games: one, in the season finale against the Eagles, when the team was down to its fourth quarterback.
“This is a team that loads up the box,” Gruden explained, and he’s not wrong. But given how the rest of the game played out, it makes you wonder how Peterson — an experienced player who knows all the game’s tricks, who understands situations, who can find the extra yard when it would hide from others — might have fared.
Keep in mind, too, exactly the circumstances in which Peterson arrived in Washington: Guice went down with a torn ACL in the 2018 preseason, and Peterson walked from the unemployment line directly into a 1,042-yard season. Given the surroundings Sunday, it’s hard to forget how 90 of those yards came — on a Monday night against the Eagles up the middle at Lincoln Financial Field, the longest run in Washington history.
That guy wasn’t worthy of a jersey? For a team that hasn’t won a playoff game in the previous 13 seasons?
“I don’t think I’ve kind of grasped it yet,” Peterson said. “It’s my first time ever being inactive, a healthy scratch. It was tough, of course. I’m a super competitor. I’ve been thinking about playing these guys since last year, since the season ended.”
So mix in the result on the scoreboard with the stats in the box score, sprinkle in the quiet pride displayed by the victim, and don’t sleep on how this decision went over in the locker room.
“As a running back room, we want everybody to be dressed out, especially a guy like that,” Thompson said. “But that’s a decision that we obviously don’t make.”
He chuckled the quiet chuckle of a mystified man.
“You don’t have too many walking Hall of Famers on your football team,” offensive tackle Morgan Moses said. “. . . Obviously, we think he’s a hell of a football player. He has a hell of a lot of juice left. Hopefully, it’s just a one-week thing and we can move forward.”
Except here’s the truth: It’s not a one-week thing, and Gruden knows that. Running back is a young man’s position, and Washington is committed to the young man it drafted to play that position, even if his career output, after Sunday’s 10-carry, 18-yard performance, is — give me a minute to add this up — 10 carries for 18 yards.
It makes you wonder why Peterson was on the roster in the first place. Asked whether there’s still a place for him, Gruden said, “There is, for sure.” Approximately two minutes later, he broke down what it would take to get Peterson in uniform on game day.
The problem, when it comes to Washington, is that no potentially controversial decision can be viewed in a vacuum. Gruden simultaneously saying there’s a place for Peterson while outlining how unlikely he is to play makes you wonder whether there are other forces at work. At Washington’s annual Welcome Home Luncheon, Peterson accepted the award as last year’s offensive MVP. Would Daniel Snyder, the team owner, and Bruce Allen, the team president, really endorse cutting a player who had just been so honored?
Whatever the justification for keeping Peterson on the team but not dressing him against the Eagles, it’s not a sustainable situation. As professional as Peterson was Sunday — “I was trying to be the best coach I could be today,” he said — he wasn’t happy. If the jerseys are distributed in the same way going forward, that won’t get better. He is too accomplished a character and too massive a presence to make into a cheerleader.
There are only two options: Play him or set him free.
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