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Adrian Peterson Is Running Out of Time

After two dismal appearances with his new team in New Orleans, it’s clear that the iconic running back will never be the same. Now what?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You may have noticed, in all of the football that you’ve been watching, that Adrian Peterson—former Minnesota Viking, future Hall of Famer—now plays for the New Orleans Saints, a team off to a sterling 0-2 start to this 2017 NFL season. You may have further noticed that he’s just regular old Adrian Peterson now; not “AD,” not “AP,” not “All Day,” not “Please Send Help,” not any other friendly, marketable shorthand, or even a first-choice, end-all-be-all running back for that matter. That’s not how the backfield works in New Orleans, and if this last part is news to you, that’s all good and fine, Peterson is only fleetingly aware of it himself:

It was understandable that Peterson, on his Monday Night homecoming—in front of general manager Rick Spielman and owner Zygi Wilf, one or both of whom decided not to pick up his contract option in the offseason—would have preferred running it up Minnesota’s “donkey” to Sean Payton’s famed (reviled?) All Verts Everything offense. Those were Peterson’s gentle words, and his stat line was just 18 yards on six carries in a 29-19 Week 1 loss. He also said “we” when directly responding to SportsCenter’s Twitter account after his sideline flare-up—tweeting through it, as it were—but it’s reasonable to assume he meant “I.” Formation.

Dalvin Cook, his younger, less-expensive Vikings replacement—the one now getting 12-plus touches a game—was right there in front of Peterson, breaking his Vikings rookie debut rushing record by 24 yards (127 and 103, respectively) almost exactly 10 years later. Also: The Saints didn’t reach the end zone until the fourth quarter. As homecomings go, that’s almost as bad as … losing your homecoming game by 10 points and not reaching the end zone until the fourth quarter.

Week 2 wasn’t great, either; the Saints gave up 36 points at home, which was everyone’s fault—Ted Ginn, A.J. Klein, circumstance for conspiring against Zach Strief’s knee—and no one’s. That game was against the New England Football Patriots, who looked to have their Faustian bargain armor back on. For what it’s worth, the Pats were one of a few teams that passed on Peterson before he signed with the Saints in April; this after Peterson reportedly “impressed” during his workout in Foxborough. Addressing the late-spring dry runs before Sunday’s game, head coach Bill Belichick said “respect” three times, and “admire” once:

“We brought him in here this spring. I have a lot of respect for him, I have a lot of respect for the way he plays, I have a lot of respect for how hard he works and how important the game is to him. I’d say all those are things I admire about Adrian.”

Adrian Peterson improved on Sunday, if marginally, to 3.25 yards per attempt, accumulating 26 yards on eight carries, a week after espousing that he, Adrian Lewis Peterson, did not sign up to play nine snaps a game. The question is, then, what he thought he was signing up for, which branches out into other questions, like who lied to whom and about what. Sean Payton has been unmistakably fond of running back Alvin Kamara since the preseason, and I am too; he’s a back with better (pass-catching) hands that the Saints took in the third round of last year’s draft. Mark Ingram is still here, which most people, like, almost everyone, took to mean some kind of auxiliary role for the former Viking in a committee backfield. Because of the obvious. Come to think of it, it was weird that Week 1 matchup against the Vikings was billed as a [Impact font voice] GRUDGE MATCH, if not totally unsurprising.

“Peterson and Ingram share similar rushing traits, and Ingram, 27, has much less wear and tear,” wrote Vinnie Iyer at Sporting News.

“Peterson might be competition for Ingram this year, but Ingram is still the no. 1 running back in New Orleans,” wrote Jamey Eisenberg at CBS Sports, after likening the new acquisition to Tim Hightower, the second-choice back who cut into Ingram’s touches last season.

“Ingram will likely have more total touches and yards from scrimmage because he is so heavily involved in the passing game as a pass-catcher and pass-protector,” wrote ESPN’s Mike Triplett in August, now seeming pretty correct.

I should back up here and note that Peterson, a seven-time Pro Bowler, is some distance from ripping off 40-yard runs on broken plays at age 32, with well over 2,000 carries and an estimated 100 billion yards on his twice-repaired knees. Fourteen touches total isn’t a large enough sample size to declare Adrian Peterson’s career done, but it has begun to crisp into a light golden brown. It’s not in how few yards he’s picked up, it’s in how distinctly not-awesome and non-terrifying he’s looked in doing so. For all the things that are still there—hands, sort of; vision, maybe—the all-important burst is not. (In the interest of fairness, the O-line isn’t either.)

It wasn’t always like this. A little known fact that is 100 percent factual about me and my Saints fandom: in January 2010 I died and came back to life. It was Adrian Peterson who killed me, and also Adrian Peterson who revived me. During the NFC championship game that year, he scored a room-spinning three touchdowns and put up 122 yards against a Saints rush defense that I couldn’t know would never be much better, or exist, in three years’ time. But Peterson fumbled twice in the third quarter, essentially punching our ticket to Miami and the Super Bowl. Less complicated to feel warm and good about was his 2012 MVP season (the only running back in the past 10 years to receive the honor), which came a year after his knee exploded into what we assumed was tiny, irretrievable pieces. I, along with my friends and everyone else who likes a feel-good story about resilience and yards after contact, was openly rooting for Peterson to break Eric Dickerson’s ancient single-season rushing record that year when he cruelly came up 8 yards short of 2,105.

We mourned with him when his 2-year-old son died of injuries sustained from being assaulted by his mother’s boyfriend; we felt terrible awe when he still played against the Carolina Panthers two days later. We vilified him after learning his preferred punitive measure as a parent was, paradoxically, whooping his his 4-year-old son with a switch—we also squeezed every last bit of mileage out of it. The child abuse scandal led to him missing almost all of the 2014 season, and he apologized, sort of, before returning and winning his third rushing title a year later. He turned himself in and took a doofy mugshot, which I’ll assume he smiled for simply because it was a picture and that’s what you’re supposed to do. I’ll say that he never seemed evil to me, just lost, which looks a lot like evil at a distance. Fuck Adrian Peterson, some of those aforementioned friends would say, when will Adrian Peterson be back, asked the rest.

But this year the question changed: How does it feel to see Peterson in a Saints jersey? The answer has been mostly puzzled silence. Serious men in serious Van Heusen suits went on TV this past spring to seriously consider what acquiring Peterson in free agency could mean for New England’s title chances, or for Dallas’s, or for Denver’s. The considered answer takes into account how unkind this sport is to aging players, and how rarely running backs older than 32 have made meaningful contributions. I’ll choose to measure this, as everyone does, by 1,000-plus-yard seasons, which has happened only a handful of times in that age bracket in the past 30-plus years. There’s also the other options New Orleans has available, both of which look more appealing, and appear to be ahead of Peterson in the pecking order. In that sense, having third-string Adrian Peterson is better than … not having Adrian Peterson at all?

But we don’t get to shed context, or his tendency to complain about the looks he’s getting, or his past, or the many conversations we’ll have about If Only Sean Payton Would Let AP Flourish. I am bored already. And the way this is going, Peterson will probably be gone by January.