The headline is all over the news: “Zimmer Wants AP Back.” Head coach Mike Zimmer once again answered questions about Adrian Peterson this week, and he basically repeated what he has said all along about the suspended running back. That’s all fine and good. But the bigger question is, does AP want to return?
Before we look into that, however, I must say that I believe these headlines jumped to a conclusion that is more speculative that concrete. Throughout the Peterson saga, Zimmer has been very careful to respond to these questions in a consistent and non-committal manner. Not once have I ever read that he has said, “I want Adrian Peterson back on the Vikings next season.” And at his final 2014 season press conference on Tuesday, when he was asked point blank if he wants Peterson back, Zimmer once again, didn’t say that he did or he didn’t:
“Well, as I’ve said many, many times Adrian was always great with me. I think he’s a good person; I think, obviously, he’s a great running back," Zimmer told the Star Tribune. "If it works out that way, and things work out, and he gets his life in order--that’s the most important thing, he gets his life in order--he gets the opportunity to come back, then I will be in his corner whatever the decision is made.”
Zimmer didn’t say he wanted him back, he said he will support him if does come back, “whatever decision is made.” Zimmer knows that he is repeating himself—and covering himself. While it is not a stretch to say he wants Peterson back (if you read between the lines), Zimmer is still making sure that he isn’t lobbying for it to happen. Is this because Zimmer, and the Vikings organization are still testing the waters to see how Vikings fans and sponsors feel about it? Are they being non-committal until April 15, which is the first time Peterson can be reinstated?
At the press conference, Zimmer was pressed further on Peterson, as he was asked about AP’s value to the team:
“I think he’d add value to any team to be honest with you,” Zimmer said. “I think the kid’s a heck of a football player. I was just watching our offensive tape. I was starting to go back right now with evaluating our players, and I started with the offense in St. Louis. There’s a good recollection on my mind right now of him.”
Zimmer enjoyed watching Peterson on tape and acknowledged the obvious, that AP is a great football player. And while he admits that Peterson adds value to any NFL team, another truism, Zimmer didn’t say, “I want to get him back on the Vikings.”
By Peterson’s high standards, he didn’t have a stupendous game against the Rams that Zimmer re-watched. He rushed for 75 yards on 21 carries—and then he was shut down for the season. The organization, suspended him, brought him back, experienced a public backlash and then the NFL put him on the commissioner’s exempt list. From that point on, the Vikings have remained safe and measured in everything they’ve said about the situation.
“Part of it is our hands are partly tied with the NFL and what the timeframe that they give us, but also it’s partly up to Adrian [to] make sure he’s doing what he has to do in order to get back, reinstated off the suspension,” Zimmer said when asked how the process going forward will work. “Those are all factors that we have to factor in. We would love to know ASAP just so that we can start going. You know a guy like him, your football team and offense can be different if you have him and if you don’t have him. It’s how you want to build the team around him, at least in my opinion anyway.”
So, the Vikings and Peterson are in limbo on the situation until mid-April since all the court rulings and appeals have been settled. But, ultimately, it may not be up to Zimmer, the Vikings or even the NFL whether or not Peterson comes back to Minnesota next spring. It will be up to Peterson—and his contract.
VikingsJournal.com commenter beckmt may have said it best: “Peterson has the choice of being here or not. It is a simple yes or no answer to the question: ‘Will you redo your contract?’"
Peterson is set to make $13 million next season (which counts as $15.4 million against the Vikings' salary cap). He will be 30 years old, the age when (most) running backs’ skills begin to deteriorate and their inevitable decline begins. And there was plenty of speculation before the season as to whether or not the Vikings should trade Peterson while his value was still high—something that changed dramatically in 2014.
There is also the school of thought that since Peterson missed a year of wear and tear on his body it gives him another year in staving off old age. But, honestly, you still can’t turn back the clock on the natural aging process—he will be another year older in 2015. Zimmer was asked about Peterson’s “season off” from getting pounded by NFL defenses:
“He didn’t take any punishment other than the one game and he’s a pretty resilient guy,” Zimmer said. “And I’m sure that he’s going to be in shape and all of those things.”
Peterson will certainly be in shape, but he has to decide, after all he’s been through, if he wants to come back to Minnesota or start fresh somewhere else—and at what cost in either of those scenarios. He has gone on the record about considering both options (and even retirement), but hasn’t really addressed the contract situation other than to tell ESPN recently that he didn't think he should have to take a pay cut next year: "I see me being a better player than I was," he said.
But Peterson’s forecast of his own future abilities aside, I feel that any return to the Vikings will need to be predicated on Peterson renegotiating a more cap-friendly deal. The Vikings paid nearly all his salary this past season and got virtually nothing (save for a big headache) out of it--and that was due to Peterson’s actions.
Peterson will have a decision to make. The Vikings could certainly use his skills and abilities, but the days are gone when their offense will completely rely on him as it did in 2012. In Peterson’s absence, Teddy Bridgewater has risen as the face of the franchise and the focal point of the Vikings offense. That change in offensive strategy is also something the uber-competitive Peterson will have to face in a return to Purple.
Vikings fans will have to decide, as well, where they come down on a return of Peterson to the team. There are plenty of feelings both ways on the subject. Some want him gone, while others feel the Vikings and Peterson were treated wrongly in the whole situation. It’s a personal decision for fans, and there may never be a complete and definitive answer either way. The discussion will likely continue until Peterson either leaves the Vikings or eventually retires.
Personally, I would like to see him on the Vikings team next year. From day one, I felt he did something very wrong, but I also understood (though did not condone) where it came from in his background and his understanding of disciplining a child. Society, in many cases, has moved away from this manner of corporal punishment. We have learned that there are better ways to handle these situations. For whatever reason, Peterson hadn’t learned it yet at the time he took a switch to his 4-year-old child. That was incredibly unfortunate. But I do believe he has learned it now.
I take him at his word and I believe he regrets his actions and is remorseful for the pain and suffering he caused. I believe in forgiveness, and his continued contrition should warrant him the opportunity to restart his career and get a second chance at making a living.
And I would like to see that second chance take place in Minnesota, because it will definitely happen somewhere, and I know that once he starts playing again, the incident will start to fade into the background. In addition, I am fairly certain that I won’t enjoy seeing him play for another NFL team. Does that make me a bad person who has no feeling towards Peterson’s son and that all I care about is what’s best for my favorite NFL team? You can make that assertion, but I know it is far from the truth.
In the long run, however, what I (or any Vikings fans) think doesn’t matter. It’s up to Peterson and the Vikings, but mostly Peterson. If you press me for an opinion, I think Mike Zimmer does want Peterson back—even though he has never come out and said those exact words. Zimmer has been in the NFL a long time, and he has seen many players, coaches and others make mistakes and watched them come back from them. So, I sense he is ready to afford Peterson that same opportunity. And if that is the case, I agree with his judgment on the matter, partially because I respect the place from where he is making it—based on his personal experience with Peterson.
“Again, I can only go on what I saw from him and how he was with me,” Zimmer said. “When I first got the job, you know one of the things that I wanted to make sure I did was to develop a relationship with Adrian to try to cultivate him into working with me and this program. I felt like over, really the short period of time that we were together, that we had done that. I really like the kid, and I hope [for] what’s best for him.”
It will be interesting to see what Peterson decides.
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Joe Oberle is a senior writer at VikingsJournal.com, covers the NFL for The Sports Post and is managing editor of Minnesota Golfer magazine. He is an author and longtime Minnesota-based writer.