Adrian Peterson was not present at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday, but the shadow of the star running back and face of the Vikings franchise loomed over the home opener after he was deactivated Friday following charges of child abuse in his home state of Texas.
There he was, rumbling for a long touchdown over the sound system as fans — many of them wearing his No. 28 jersey — walked into the stadium. There he was on the tickets they handed to stadium employees who showed them to their seats. And for the social media savants clicking their iPhones for instant updates, there he was on the background of the team’s official Twitter page.
Vikings players couldn’t even escape the image of Peterson despite playing at the University of Minnesota’s stadium. As they walked from the locker room to the tunnel to take the field, they passed a sign with an image of Peterson that read: “Outrun. Outhit. Outwork.”
And then they went out and did none of those things.
Their ugly 30-7 loss to the New England Patriots felt even more lopsided than the score. Head coach Mike Zimmer admitted his team was off, but despite his players hearing about the stunning charges filed against Peterson less than 48 hours before kickoff, Zimmer insisted the Peterson saga wasn’t a distraction.
“It didn’t affect the team. You know what affected the team? Throwing interceptions, getting a field goal blocked, not tackling well enough, having penalties on defense. That’s what affected the team. The team was fine,” said Zimmer, who reluctantly acknowledged later that losing Peterson did have an impact on the field.
The Vikings opened the game with an 80-yard touchdown drive, keeping the Patriots off balance with the threat of Cordarrelle Patterson runs and play-action passes. Starting quarterback Matt Cassel completed all four of his attempts for 75 yards on the drive, including a 25-yard touchdown pass to Matt Asiata, Peterson’s replacement in the starting lineup.
But a pair of first-half interceptions were the proverbial pin in the team’s balloon.
Cassel was picked off on two of the next three drives — once by safety Devin McCourty and another by cornerback Darrelle Revis — and the Patriots offense cashed in both turnovers for touchdowns.
In the final minute of the first half, the Vikings trotted out kicker Blair Walsh for a 48-yard field goal that would have cut into the Patriots’ 17-7 lead. But Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones burst through the line, blocked Walsh’s attempt and scooped it up for a 58-yard touchdown return.
Some fans at TCF Bank Stadium booed as the Vikings retreated to the locker room for halftime, and the team never recovered from the 10-point swing. Cassel threw two more interceptions in the second half, giving him a career-high four in the loss.
“Any time you have four turnovers and a blocked field goal for a touchdown, you’re going to get beat,” Zimmer said.
But despite Cassel completing just 15 of 32 attempts for 127 yards and taking six sacks after the opening drive, and despite the chants for rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the second half, Zimmer declared that Cassel would start again this weekend against the 0-2 New Orleans Saints.
“Obviously, today was a tough day for me,” Cassel said. “You want to put your team in a great position to win, and I take full responsibility for not taking care of the football today.”
While Cassel’s inconsistency was glaring and his inaccuracy doomed the Vikings (1-1) against the Patriots (1-1), the mistakes weren’t limited to the man under center.
The Vikings, particularly cornerback Xavier Rhodes, took penalties at inopportune times. The defense, which held up OK despite excellent starting field position for the Patriots throughout the game, didn’t force a turnover and had just one sack. Zimmer lamented the lack of urgency on offense. And the Vikings had just nine men on the field for one Patriots punt.
“We were just kind of [off] a little bit,” Zimmer said. “It wasn’t that they weren’t trying hard or excited to play. I think they were ready to play. We just weren’t crisp today like we have been every single day, almost every single day in practice.”
But to a man, the Vikings players didn’t use the absence of their best player — and the child abuse charge that “shocked” Cassel, Patterson and many other teammates — as an excuse for their poor performance.
Zimmer, who tried to dodge questions about Peterson, said the Vikings plan to hold a news conference this week, perhaps as early as Monday, to discuss Peterson’s immediate future with the team. Zimmer wouldn’t say whether Peterson, whose case is being reviewed by the NFL under its personal conduct policy, will join his teammates at Winter Park today.
But with Peterson’s legal situation and status with the league in limbo, his teammates might have to get used to not having Peterson around, replaced by the constant reminders — like that sign in the TCF Bank Stadium tunnel — that he is gone.
“There’s nothing we can do [about] Adrian,” Patterson said. “We just have to get that mind-set. Twenty-eight probably ain’t going to be here with us. So we just have to come in and do what we do best.”