METAIRIE, LA. – Adrian Peterson was running a wheel route 30 yards downfield with two defenders blanketing him when Drew Brees launched the ball.
What the … ?
“Yeah, that’s not the first thing we think of when looking at Adrian’s skill set,” Saints coach Sean Payton joked after a practice with the Texans a week ago.
And yet Peterson went up, grabbed the ball and toppled into the end zone. Then he raced to the sideline and chest-bumped a teammate as a fan screamed, “I see you All-Day!”
“You can’t be one-dimensional when you’re in the game,” Payton said. “Adrian has shown some flexibility.”
Practice ends and Peterson smiles at a familiar visitor from a much cooler climate.
“And they say I can’t catch,” he says.
In Adrian Peterson’s mind, there’s always a disbeliever, a they that drives the former Vikings All-Pro running back and NFL MVP to keep bouncing back during a 32-year life that’s been littered with adversity as well as greatness.
But how many times can he keep doing it?
One of Peterson’s favorite pieces of scripture is Proverbs 24:16. Taught to him by his pastor, Calvin Simmons, it says, “For a just man falls seven times and rises up again … ”
So Peterson believes he will rise again, albeit in an unfamiliar complementary role, starting Sept. 11 at U.S. Bank Stadium against a Vikings team that was centered on him for 10 seasons.
“In my mind, we’re starting and ending the season in Minnesota,” said Peterson, referring to Super Bowl LII. “Of course I want to stick it to them. I want to stick it to everyone we play. But going back to Minnesota, playing the Vikings? Yeah, I want to stick it to them.”
But don’t confuse competitiveness with bitterness. Although Peterson paid homage to Vikings fans, he seemed almost giddy sitting there talking about his change of scenery. He also says he passed on the Patriots, Seahawks and three other unnamed teams so he could return to where he’s most comfortable: the deep South.
“There’s more love here, I guess, because it’s Louisiana and there’s a lot of Southern people,” said the native Texan. “New Orleans and the Saints have more of a family-type feel. It feels right.”
When the Vikings declined to pick up Peterson’s $18 million salary for this season, Peterson said the team asked if he’d entertain a lower offer to return. He claims he would have thought about it but didn’t hear from the team again until it signed Latavius Murray.
Peterson said it was “obvious” both sides needed to move on. He also said he’s not upset when he hears the Vikings celebrate the benefits of now having three younger running backs who aren’t one-dimensional.
“Whatever floats their boat,” Peterson said. “Teams run different styles of offense. The Saints are a dominant pass team. But they’re trying to be more balanced, so Sean pursued me. I know what I can do. Whatever Minnesota feels like will advance them, they should go for it. I am.”
Peterson is coming off a season in which he missed 13 games because of right knee surgery to repair a meniscus that was 90 percent torn. Now, he’s on a passing team that belongs to Brees and includes a Pro Bowl running back who averaged 5.1 yards per carry (Mark Ingram) and a rookie running back whose big-play potential has everyone in the bayou buzzing (Alvin Kamara).
He knows some Minnesotans are rolling their eyes at the notion that he’s reportedly embracing a backup role with a significant reduction in carries and a job description that includes catching the football. They’ve heard many times before how Peterson was going to evolve in the passing game.
“Oh, he’ll catch the ball with Drew,” said Saints right tackle Zach Stief. “We will get him in space and see if people still want to tackle him. And I’m telling you the answer to that is, ‘Not really.’ ”
Although Peterson never has looked consistently comfortable catching the ball, he points out that he played with 12 different starting quarterbacks in 10 years in Minnesota. His career highs for catches (43) and receiving yards (436) came in 2009 when he was paired with Brett Favre.
So Peterson sees Brees and the Saints as another opportunity for him to rise again. Like he did when he was 7 and his 9-year-old brother, Brian, was hit and killed by a drunk driver. Or when he was 13 and his father, Nelson, was sent to prison for 10 years. Or when he ran that 4.4 at the combine the day after his half-brother, Chris Paris, was murdered. Or when he returned from a torn left ACL in nine months en route to league MVP honors in 2012.
Or when he won his third rushing title in 2015, at age 30, a year after missing 15 games as he dealt with child abuse charges stemming from how he disciplined his 4-year-old son.
Peterson didn’t want to dig up 2015, when he and his agent, Ben Dogra, tried desperately to force the Vikings to relinquish Peterson.
“I voiced my opinion back then,” he said. “The decision to want a change of scenery was due to what transpired two years ago.”
Peterson felt then that the Vikings didn’t support him strongly enough when the league stepped in and directed the steps that led to him missing all but one game.
“I don’t think the fans turned on me in ’14,” Peterson said. “I know everyone is entitled to their opinions [about corporal punishment], so there were mixed feelings on what happened. And the governor [Mark Dayton] came out and made his big spiel.”
Dayton said what Peterson did was “a public embarrassment” to the Vikings and Minnesota. Peterson did apologize, said he didn’t intend to harm his son and insisted he isn’t a child abuser. His supporters defended him in what many saw as a cultural divide between North and South on corporal punishment.
“Some people up there didn’t understand,” Peterson said. “But things are going to be different. You can’t go to China and expect to speak English all the time and think they’re going to understand everything you’ve got to say. It is what it is.”
Don’t box him in
Each Saints player seems to have a memorable moment when he was convinced Peterson still possessed the physical attributes to be an atypical 32-year-old running back. For fullback John Kuhn, it came during OTAs when players were doing box jumps.
“The box was at 44, 48 inches,” Kuhn said. “A lot of us were jumping off of two legs and just barely making it. Adrian walks in, jumps off one foot and makes it easy. Then he did it off the other foot, and just walked away.”
Deuce McAlister is a former Saints running back who now has a local radio show. His moment was watching Peterson’s first jump cut in practice.
“I’ve played the position and I’ve had knee injuries,” he said. “With Adrian, you can see the stop and go. The jump cut. He can still plant and explode. You say, ‘Yeah, he’s 100 percent.’ ”
Peterson looks great, as always. He says his body fat is just below 6 percent. He says he’s stronger, and whenever the Saints run gassers, Strief says Peterson routinely leads his group of 25 players by 20 yards.
“He’s just intense,” Brees said. “It’s one speed all the time. He even runs angry in practice.”
Only 12 times in NFL history has a running back rushed for 1,000 yards past age 31. With 993 yards, Peterson would leapfrog six Hall of Famers while going from 16th on the career rushing list (11,747) to ninth. No. 8 is 34-year-old Frank Gore, who’s still active and 1,318 yards ahead of Peterson.
“I’ll be surprised if Adrian doesn’t have a good year,” former Saints quarterback Archie Manning said while watching practice last week. “We know he has something left, but can he stay healthy at his age? The Saints will make sure they don’t overuse him. They don’t need 1,000 yards from Adrian. And I think he understands that, knowing the team he’s on and his age.”
Teammates believe Peterson will thrive with fewer carries and less pressure to carry an offense in a passing league.
“We’re not all going to jump on his back like in Minnesota and see how far he can carry us,” Strief said.
“And,” Kuhn added, “I dare you to load the box to stop him. Do that, and Drew will exploit you with the pass.”
Peterson said his new offensive line will help him maximize the fewer carries he’ll probably get. During the offseason, he said the Vikings had an “average” line when he led the league in rushing in 2015.
Asked to compare that line to the one he has now, Peterson said, “I can’t compare the two. This is the No. 1 offense in the league. So there’s no comparison.”
The sight of Peterson in a Saints uniform is at its strangest when he’s in the team’s indoor facility working out in front of the giant banner celebrating the Super Bowl XLIV victory.
“I know, man,” Peterson said. “A couple times, I’ve looked up at that banner and think, ‘Man, we gave that NFC title game away.’ ”
The Saints reached the Super Bowl after beating the Vikings 31-28 in overtime. The Vikings turned the ball over five times. Peterson fumbled twice but did not lose the ball while rushing for 122 yards and three touchdowns.
“It still hurts,” he said.
And now Peterson is hoping to inflict more pain upon his former team. Don’t expect any 30-yard wheel routes, but a Saints team mired in a streak of three consecutive 7-9 seasons does seem pretty pumped to see what exactly will happen with more power in the run game.
“What do I expect from Adrian on Monday night?” Strief asked. “I expect him to be very ready to go for Minnesota. Very, very ready to go.”