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Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (28)

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Scoggins: Peterson's future paydays ride on performance

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS
  • Star Tribune
  • August 31, 2014 - 11:14 PM

News of Adrian Peterson’s phone conversation with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones surfaced only a few days after Kevin Love’s forced departure from Minnesota became official this week so we’ll forgive anyone for being a little jumpy.

We’ve had our fill of superstars looking elsewhere.

ESPN’s report of the Peterson-Jones conversation fueled rampant speculation because it’s the NFL, it’s the Cowboys and it involved Peterson, one of the league’s best and most recognizable stars.

Let’s pump the brakes on this story and attempt to put that phone conversation into context.

To recap, an ESPN reporter was interviewing Jones in June when an associate handed him a phone with Peterson on the other end. The reporter heard only one side of the conversation but surmised — based on Jones’ comments and tone — that the Texas-born Peterson told the owner that he’d like to play for the Cowboys at the end of his career. Jones later confirmed to the reporter that Peterson indeed told him that.

Not surprisingly, Peterson downplayed the story, saying it was a “casual conversation between NFL colleagues in which I never indicated I wanted to leave the Vikings.”

Some argue the conversation violated league tampering rules because Jones didn’t inform the Vikings about it. Whether the league investigates or not, that phone call, if portrayed accurately, hardly rises to the level of two parties scheming to hasten an exit.

If anything, the timing of the report is interesting because Peterson, in a one-on-one conversation with my colleague Jim Souhan this week, stated emphatically that he hopes to finish his career in Minnesota.

“That would be special,” Peterson said.

Peterson has shared his desire to spend his entire career in one place on other occasions. But he also noted the business side of the NFL, a tacit acknowledgment that he might not get to script his preferred ending.

Peterson is 29 years old and the highest-paid player at a position of diminishing value in today’s NFL. His contract will pay him $12 million this season.

His cap number increases to $15.4 million in 2015, $15 million in 2016, and $17 million in 2017, according to the website overthecap.com, which tracks NFL salaries.

That’s an exorbitant amount of cap space devoted to a running back who will be on the wrong side of age 30, even for someone destined for the Hall of Fame.

Peterson isn’t naive. He knows his age and contract are on a collision course.

At some point, the organization likely will approach Peterson about taking a pay cut or restructuring his contract. Happens all the time with high-priced veterans. Peterson’s pride in being the best, both present and historically, fuels his motivation, so would he be willing to accept less than what he believes is his value?

Peterson has seen stark reminders of the NFL’s unsympathetic nature. He’s watched his organization cut ties with Steve Hutchinson, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield and Kevin Williams in recent years.

The guess here is that Peterson had a “casual” conversation with Jones because he realizes he might be in that same situation one day, too. Maybe not after this season, or even the next one. But Peterson is not blind to the possibility that he might wear a different uniform at some point in his career.

This in no way suggests the Vikings should trade Peterson as soon as possible, a discussion that has gained traction with a segment of Vikings fans.

True, the NFL has evolved into a quarterback-driven league, which has decreased the value of running backs. But since when did those two things become mutually exclusive? Peterson hasn’t handcuffed or held back the Vikings offense in this passing era. Blame that on substandard quarterback play.

The Vikings showed in 2009 the benefit of having Peterson in the backfield along with a quarterback (Brett Favre) who is capable of taking advantage of a potent running game.

The risk of injury, Peterson’s age and his contract remain valid concerns. But he still strikes fear in opponents, he keeps himself in great shape, and Norv Turner’s arrival as coordinator has energized him.

If Peterson hits a wall physically and his production sharply declines, the Vikings could release him after this season with only a $2.4 million cap hit, with no cap penalty in subsequent years. Or they could attempt to trade him. The team would be justified in seeking a much cheaper alternative.

Peterson realizes his contract demands a certain level of performance. He says he loves Turner’s offense and his role in it.

History hasn’t been kind to running backs his age, but people shouldn’t bet against Peterson just yet.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com.

© 2014 Star Tribune