In April, the New Orleans Saints signed former Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to a two-year deal worth $7 million. The decision to add the future Hall of Famer has caused criticism and confusion among the media and sports fans. Why would the high-flying Saints want an aging running back with a history of health concerns and no proven track record for receptions? Conversely, why would the seven-time Pro Bowler coveting a championship sign with the Saints who have 50-1 odds of winning the Super Bowl LII? Rather than risk injury by playing a full season, he could have waited to join a Super Bowl team in February or a contender who loses a star running back late in the season. This is a confusing story but it should create a symbiotic relationship with positive results.
Adrian Peterson: The Man, the Myth, the Legend
Who is Adrian Peterson?
Adrian Peterson is a workhorse running back with an astounding career. He was drafted seventh overall in 2007 by the Minnesota Vikings where he played for ten years and became the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. He surpassed 1,000 rushing yards seven times in his career and did not play in all 16 games three of those times. In 2012, he became one of just seven players in NFL history with a 2,000-yard season. Peterson has 102 career touchdowns with 97 rushing and five receiving. He earned All-Pro six of his first seven games. His 2,418 career carries place him third among active running backs and 26th in the NFL. Many of the 25 players in front have played several full seasons more than him. Peterson has only played four full seasons in his ten-year NFL career mostly on account of injury. In 2017, the Vikings declined his contract option.
New Orleans Decision to Sign Peterson
There are three issues with Adrian Peterson: His age, his health and his track record for catching passes out of the backfield. New Orleans also already has a number one running back in Mark Ingram. Although the Saints’ decision is perplexing, signing Peterson is a no-brainer for a team with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
“Peterson is not a Receiver”
The Saints are a passing team and have ranked first in pass completions to running backs in four of the last five years. Their top rusher, Mark Ingram, had 46 receptions last year and 50 the year before. Peterson seldom accounted for more than one or two receptions per game in Minnesota and he was the featured player. In fairness, he played on a team with a mediocre offensive line and lackluster quarterbacks. He now plays for an elite quarterback for the first time since 2009, when he played with Brett Favre. It should be noted that Peterson caught 43 receptions that year for 436 receiving yards.
But who said that Peterson needs to catch balls? In 2015 he rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and had 11 rushing touchdowns. Ingram had six. While Ingram may be a stronger pass catcher, Peterson has the ability to find the end zone. He also has size at 6’1″ and 220 pounds. For this reason, it is likely that Peterson will be the favored goal line specialist.
“Peterson is an Aging Running Back with Health Concerns”
Peterson is now in the latter part of his career which raises the question: How much gas can a 32-year old running back have left in the tank? The Saints must think there is enough. Peterson’s age has cast doubt over his capabilities before. When he was 30, “he is going downhill” was the common rhetoric used to describe his latest injury on a list which includes a torn LCL, a torn ACL and a torn meniscus. He missed 28 of 32 games in 2014 and 2016.
But Peterson has a legendary ability to bounce back. After blowing out his knee in 2011, he returned to post 2,097 yards. He missed 15 of 16 games in 2014 and he was cautioned that his age had finally caught up to him. He returned with a vengeance the following season and won his third rushing title with 327 carries for 1,485 yards. A few weeks ago head coach Sean Payton noted that “Peterson could go against conventional wisdom for aging running backs because he’s done it before – returning from two torn ligaments in less than nine months … because of how hard he trains.” The Saints have acquired a Hall of Famer at a discounted price with the added bonus of a chip on his shoulder.
Peterson’s Decision to Sign with the Saints
The bigger question in this equation is not why the Saints chose Adrian Peterson, but why Adrian Peterson chose the Saints. It isn’t clear why he would sign at a time when he could have opted out of the off-season. He could have also waited for a Super Bowl contender later in the season. Instead he chose to rush for a team that passes for 5,000 yards a season. He will be playing behind the higher paid 27-year old Ingram and will become part of a committee for the first time in his career. His predecessor, Reggie Bush, with all of his credentials was underutilized while he played for the Saints compared to the Dolphins or the Lions.
Peterson has defended his decision stating that he “chose this team because it just felt right within my spirit.” Citing a gut instinct as an explanation seems vague. But who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play for a top-ranked offense with an elite quarter back who continues to crush NFL records nearly every time he touches a football. Peterson has never played with a quarterback like Brees except for one season with Favre nearly a decade ago.
Sean Payton’s ability to creatively use two running backs is also a draw for an aging player. The running back understands his options at this point in his career. In signing with the Saints, he finds himself on a high octane offense that always keeps opponents on their heels trying to cover receivers. Let’s not kid ourselves here. While he may be forced to accept a diminished role, we will still see a very productive Peterson.
As for why he joined so early in the offseason, we may never know the real answer. We could surmise that outside of his ‘gut instinct’ and desire to be part of a team from the beginning, Payton likely advised Peterson that he couldn’t be guaranteed a spot after the draft and therefore put the pressure on Peterson.
How it all Plays Out
A Worst-Case Scenario
Even without the addition of Adrian Peterson, the New Orleans Saints are playoff contenders for 2017. They had an exceptional NFL Draft and their defense managed to add several key components. They also still have Drew Brees quarterbacking one of the best offenses in the league. The Saints will be making noise. The risk that Peterson doesn’t pan out was mitigated by drafting Alvin Kamara in the third round this year. They will have enough depth in the backfield alongside Ingram to intimidate their opponents.
Adrian Peterson and the Future for the Saints
The potential reward for New Orleans outweighs the potential risk. The addition of Peterson could be the missing piece of the puzzle for an offense that finished 7-9 last season. Because the Saints tend to keep the ball in the air, they have become highly predictable. When their passing game is contained they don’t have much left in their playbook. Peterson can make an impact here. He will be able to take some pressure off of Brees and the offensive line which will allow more play action. An enriched running game will create new challenges for the opposition. It will be a key ingredient in their long-term success and their ability to go deep into the playoffs.
Peterson’s health and how he fits in with New Orleans will remain an unknown until he gets a couple of games under his belt as a Saint. He looked timeless in 2015 but 32 is not a friendly age for a running back. The Saints have heard that line for years in reference to their own aging quarterback who continues to break records. At this point, it would not be wise to underestimate Peterson when he has something to prove. With ‘gas in the tank and a chip on his shoulder,’ Peterson is immortal on the football field. No player in the last ten years has matched his rare combination of relentlessness, power and speed. He is transcendent of his generation and is a measuring stick for running backs. There is a good chance that Adrian Peterson is just a man. But the Saints are betting that he is a legend.