The Minnesota Vikings star running back is doing just that – running.
Assembled media at Winter Park Tuesday saw Adrian Peterson testing his surgically repaired meniscus by running approximately 25-yard sprints on the practice field. The defending rushing champion, who tore his meniscus in Week 2 of the season, looked close to full speed as he ran, wearing shorts, under the watchful eye of trainer Eric Sugarman.
Soon, it seems, Peterson will add pads and, eventually, a football. A mid-December return appears inevitable when considering the way Peterson has stayed close to the team facility, watched games intently from the sideline and now, as reporters saw Tuesday, taking literal strides to expedite his return. “He’s a great player,” said guard Brandon Fusco. “We’d welcome him back with open arms, and it would be great for us.”
All signs point toward Peterson rejoining the team and endeavoring to spark a historically bad running game. But stepping onto the field carries a set of meaningful implications for the 31-year-old back, who is due an outrageous $18 million next season and is unlikely to rejoin the Vikings next year if he insists on that figure.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of returning from the perspective of No. 28.
PRO: Peterson can prove he still has value.
What better way for Peterson to prove his worth than joining a rushing attack gaining merely 2.8 yards per carry? The Vikings have gone from a top-five rushing team to a bottom-of-the-barrel ground attack in the course of one season, and though Peterson’s absence is only one of many unforeseen changes, it could be the most significant.
In fairness, Peterson himself only averaged 1.6 yards per carry in his game and a half of action, but that’s a small sample size. The sample size without him is much larger, and it reinforces that the Vikings are no more explosive or creative without Peterson as some pundits had hoped. If Peterson reenters the picture and transforms the run game, however improbable that might be, it could change his perceived value within the organization and around the league. If the Vikings refuse to give Peterson the salary he desires, whether that’s $12 million, $10 million or $8 million, he’d be more likely to get that on the open market if he shows up down the stretch for Minnesota.
CON: Failing could damage his value even further.
While the upside of coming back and tearing it up is high, the downside of returning and faltering is fairly serious. Let’s say Peterson carries the ball 50 times in the final handful of games this season and gains 2.5 yards per attempt. In that scenario, he’s proven that he is not dynamic enough to compensate for a weak offensive line, which is arguably the only reason to dramatically overpay for a running back — if they help mask other weaknesses.
Without a doubt, the offensive line has been the primary source of the team’s rushing woes. Jerick McKinnon is not a 3.0 ypc-caliber running back, yet that’s all he’s managed behind the current personnel. Similarly, Peterson is better than 1.6 yards per carry might reflect, but if he can’t prove that he is able to rise above the blocking issues to hit his typical 5 yards per rush, then what is his value? Certainly not $18 million – probably not half that.
Worse yet, rushing back from knee surgery carries with it inherent risk. Not only does Peterson risk being ineffective because of his healing knee, he risks additional injury that could make for another offseason rehab. This could be another red flag for potential suitors if Peterson hits the market.
PRO: Peterson can improve his legacy with a playoff run.
Peterson has just one playoff win in his career. That has to sting him. The Vikings were once considered Super Bowl contenders. Now they’re not. An impactful Peterson return could swing that tide, however, if it works as Peterson ostensibly envisions. If he comes back and is able to resurrect the team from the deep hole it’s dug, Peterson’s mystique would grow even more. He’d forever be the guy who beat, not one, but TWO knee injuries, returned ahead of schedule after both and was immediately the best player on the field.
Peterson remarkably won a rushing title in 2012 after an ACL tear. There’s no doubt he views this as his encore performance.
CON: The Vikings may not make the playoffs.
If there’s a humorous side to this discussion, it’s that Peterson likely began his rehab with every intention of gearing up for a Super Bowl run, especially when the Vikings were 5-0. Suddenly, he may be returning to a sinking ship. If Peterson’s return date is Dec. 18, it’s possible the Vikings could be 6-7 and out of contention. At that point, a Peterson return would likely be nothing more than a noble act. That, and our next item…
PRO: Peterson can pad his career yardage total.
Peterson was supposed to breeze into the top 10 in all-time rushing the season. An 1,100-yard season would have put him comfortably in eighth place and an arm’s length away from Eric Dickerson, Jerome Bettis and LaDainian Tomlinson. The torn meniscus messed up his pace, and Peterson already missed 15 critical games back in 2014 that put him behind the 8-ball.
By all accounts, Peterson cares about his place in history, and getting three or four extra games now, while he’s only 31, could help him down the road.
CON: The Vikings may not give him many opportunities.
Minnesota already runs the ball about five times fewer per game that it did last year. The Vikings have also established that McKinnon or Matt Asiata are better options on third down because of their pass catching and pass protection skills. Out of the 25 times the Vikings run the ball per game, it’s safe to think that McKinnon will still take about 10 – some of those in the Wildcat — and Asiata might get around five attempts between short yardage situations and frustrating 3rd-and-14 draw plays, leaving Peterson with about 10 for himself.
No running back coming off knee surgery is going to take 25 carries right off the bat, so Peterson’s initial role may be limited.
While Peterson will certainly be thinking about his own future as he makes this comeback, the Vikings organization will have its own set of concerns.
How much can they justifiably pay an aging, perhaps declining, running back, who happens to be the best rusher in franchise history?
How greatly do they value Peterson’s marketability?
Do they feel Peterson is still viable as a feature back as the NFL continues to steer away from workhorses?
Everyone should have more clarity on these questions once the season comes to an end. In the short term, though, Peterson’s impending return represents something different: A potential shot in the arm that could resuscitate the Vikings.
“He’s a competitor,” said McKinnon, “so I know when he makes the decision to come back, it’s going to be in his time, and he’s going to be ready to go.”