By Jason Keidel
Let’s understand this.
The New Orleans Saints have been known for a decade as a team that short-circuits the scoreboard with a pyrotechnic passing attack, behind the arm, smarts and savvy of Drew Brees, with quick, sharp passing downfield and smart, agile backs blocking then darting into the flat. The Saints signed Adrian Peterson and wonder why it didn’t pop in Week 1?
This team spent time and much money to acquire a player who doesn’t fit into the contours of their high-tech offense. And it showed, at least in their first game, a loss to the Vikings. While the world anticipated a payback game against his former club, Peterson played a career-low nine snaps and tied a career-low with six rushes.
Peterson said this week that he didn’t sign up for nine snaps. True. He signed with the only team willing to give him a two-year contract worth $7 million, with a $2.5 million signing bonus and $3.5 million guaranteed. Like the league tells us, don’t ever count another man’s money. But Peterson went to New Orleans for the quid, not the carries.
Yes, Adrian Peterson was — was — a great runner: a transcendent, game-breaking, bruising runner who put fear into the eyes of otherwise hard and tough men. But there’s nothing in his recent history, or in the history of running backs, to suggest he was going to set the NFL ablaze this year. Even at his herculean best, Peterson wasn’t exactly Charley Taylor out of the backfield, or Walter Payton blocking blitzers. He’s a bruiser, a tank, whose salad days are well behind him in the rearview mirror.
What did New Orleans expect? You sign a 32-year-old running back who’s now played just four games since 2015, and just one full season since 2013, and you’re shocked that he didn’t run for 200 yards against a robust Vikings defense?
And there already seems to be rancor among the ranks. Long known as combustible in the locker room, Peterson did have a notable highlight. It didn’t include a run or catch, but rather a scowling walk behind head coach Sean Payton, barking something unpleasant as Payton turned around. Peterson joked with reporters after the game, saying the furious gaze didn’t reflect his words, and perhaps he was saying, “I love you,” to his new coach. A poor attempt at humor from a poor free-agent signing.
Anyone would have taken Peterson five or six years ago, at his absolute peak, when he could gallop for 2,000 yards. But they don’t make his model anymore. Peterson, in the current NFL climate, is dial-up in a Wifi world. When David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell and Le’Sean McCoy play with an entire tool belt — running, receiving and blocking — Peterson is just your favorite hammer.
Just as 40 is the equivalent of midnight for a quarterback’s career, we know that 30 is a magic membrane for the running back. Bill Parcells famously said there’s only so much tread on the tires, and few running backs in history have burned more gridiron rubber than Peterson, whose old-world savage style of running reminds you of the greats from NFL Films — Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, John Riggins, etc. But that style doesn’t translate today, particularly at his age.
And if New Orleans thought they were having it rough in Minnesota, they now get to host the Super Bowl champions. Both the Saints and Patriots are 0-1. And since they expanded the playoffs to the current format, teams that start 0-2 have just a 12 percent chance of making the playoffs. So, considering what’s at stake, which team do you trust more?
Pundits are already pondering Peterson’s next destination, as though this experiment bombed in 60 minutes. Premature? Maybe. No matter, either Peterson or the Saints have to tweak their expectations, or just live with each other in abject dysfunction. And they better win a game — with Peterson involved — or his next words to Sean Payton may not be fit for family television.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.