Career Direction: Adrian Peterson = Barry Sanders?
Barry Sanders, the most explosive runner of his era. Played for the horrible Detroit Lions and thus never had any playoff glory. Many argue his career was wasted by poor management of the Lions. Barry retired at age 30 after the Lions would not relinquish their rights to him. He preferred to not play as opposed to playing for the Lions. Given his conditioning one could have argued had he been released/traded he could have picked a good team and played out another two or three seasons at a high level, similar to his counterpart Emmit Smith. It made no sense for the Lions to clutch him, as they killed the end of his career and were left empty handed. Barry Sanders was the best player in the league when he retired and they got nothing for him. Nothing.
Adrian Peterson, the most explosive runner of his era. Playing for the horrible Minnesota Vikings:
For the next 15 minutes, Peterson demonstrated the extent of his progress by running two sets of sideline-to-sideline sprints. He performed a series of box jumps, moved laterally to catch a rolling soccer ball and ran tight circles around a wide hula hoop.
The scene was impressive for a player 19 weeks removed from tearing two ligaments in his knee. As he caught his breath afterwards, Peterson reiterated his intent to be ready for the Vikings' Week 1 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, by far the early side of the typical range for injuries as significant as his.
"People can say what they want to say," he said. "I've got my goals."
I felt conflicted watching Peterson work out and listening to his optimism. Part of me admired his intense desire to return ahead of schedule. The other part kept flashing back to the end of "Fargo."
A cynic might say the Vikings know they won't compete for an NFC North title in 2012, making this season as good of a time as any to break in a new place-kicker. Here's what general manager Rick Spielman said Wednesday:
"I think our emphasis has always been trying to get our team better, get it younger, and that's the direction we kind of went. It just fits in with everything else we’re kind of honed in on this offseason."
It's hard to argue with that approach after a 9-23 record over the past two seasons. But as we first discussed last fall, it threatens to nullify the prime of one of the NFL's best players.
Peterson is 27 and has taken the pounding of five professional seasons. By the standards of NFL running backs, at least, the clock on his career is already ticking. It's more than reasonable to wonder what type of performer he will be when the Vikings see the fruit of their rebuilding project.
I'm not going to suggest the Vikings should hold Peterson out of the lineup once he's medically cleared. But in the big picture, there seems to be every reason to take it as slow as possible. If Peterson can avoid some wear and tear during a rebuilding season, wouldn't that help the Vikings in the long-term?
That's a cold and calculated analysis that isn't likely to apply in this case. Neither the Vikings nor Peterson should time his rehabilitation progress based on the projected competitiveness of the team. NFL teams are expected to compete with all available resources at all times. It's not for Peterson to "save" himself for future seasons. The timing is what it is.
The best thing Peterson can do in the short-term is help this team squeeze out a few more victories than it appears capable of while imposing his fanatical work ethic on others. He seems to understand that as well. During rehabilitation a few weeks ago, Peterson noticed some teammates running sprints. Sugarman gave him permission to join them. He wiped out the field.
"Those guys got an understanding of 'Hey, he's really pushing hard to get back out to a level better than he played at before' and it was even more motivation for those guys," Peterson said. "It was like, 'Hey he's out here four months and he's beating us.' Maybe we need to do something different."
Knowing Adrian Peterson, he'll do everything he can to will the Vikings to more success than expected in 2012. It's reasonable to question whether it will be enough, and to wonder how long it will take the rest of this roster to catch up. Will Adrian Peterson be this generation's Barry Sanders? Is he a Hall of Fame player whose career window doesn't match up with his team's window for winning? That's what it feels like at the moment.
Peterson has not been as durable as Sanders. Gauging the average time most runners last in the league at a high level, the man has three good seasons left. His track record doesn't really allow for any aggressive extrapolations. The Vikings would be better suited in trading him once he's back and has established to the league that he's healthy. He would land them a huge bounty at that point. That would be the best scenario for both parties in my honest opinion.