Detroit Lions RB Adrian Peterson returns to Minnesota: ‘You remember who hurt you’

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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The words have changed over the years, softened by time. But the pain Adrian Peterson felt when the Minnesota Vikings ushered him out the door has not gone away.

Peterson will play his third game against his former team Sunday when the Detroit Lions travel to Minnesota for an NFC North showdown, and the future Hall of Fame running back’s father said the way Peterson was treated on his way out the door remains a bone of contention.

“(This game) means a hell of a lot to him,” Nelson Peterson told the Free Press this week. “Every time he goes back, he’s looking for the opportunity to show that he still can play, that they made the (wrong) decision by releasing him.”

The Vikings declined an $18 million option on Peterson’s contract in 2017, making him a free agent.

That decision was not entirely surprising — Peterson, 31 at the time, played just three games the previous season because of a torn meniscus in his right knee — but Nelson Peterson said he and his son felt burned by the way it happened.

Peterson was willing to take a pay cut to stay in Minnesota, and said as much to general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer in his end-of-season exit meeting.

The Vikings never gave him the chance, though, declining to engage in meaningful contract negotiations and signing Latavius Murray to a three-year, $15 million free agent deal instead.

Zimmer said in a conference call with Detroit reporters this week the decision to let Peterson go “was more about the cap than anything else.” Peterson acknowledged the business side of the move, but admitted it left “a sour taste” in his mouth.

Nearly four years later, Nelson Peterson said that sour taste remains.

“I mean, if we’re being honest about it, hurt is there,” he said. “You remember who hurt you. The hurt that you felt when you’re negotiating a contract, you feel like you’re at the part of your contract where there’s no more guaranteed money, and we know they’re not going to pay ($18 million), but we never expected not to get an offer. Like, damn, we’re just through? And from that point on, I mean, they brought in Latavius Murray for what? You might as well have kept Adrian and gave him that money you gave him for what he did there. It didn’t work out. You followed it. You seen it yourself.”

‘A lethal weapon’

The Vikings went 13-3 their first season without Peterson, when they beat the New Orleans Saints in the Minneapolis Miracle then lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game.

Murray had a modest 842 yards rushing that season, and the Vikings took their current starter, Dalvin Cook, in the second round of the 2017 draft.

Cook, after tearing his ACL as a rookie, has emerged as one of the NFL’s premier running backs and a rightful heir to Peterson’s Vikings throne.

“He’s a lethal weapon,” Peterson said.

Peterson, meanwhile, has continued down his Hall of Fame track while bouncing around in the league.

He played 10 games for two teams in 2017, rushing for 529 yards for the Saints and Arizona Cardinals, then spent two seasons in Washington. He had the eighth 1,000-yard rushing season of his career in 2018 and just missed that mark (898 yards in 15 games) in 2019. Released by Washington in August, Peterson signed a one-year, incentive-laden deal with the Lions and leads the team in rushing yards (321) and attempts (85) while splitting time with rookie D’Andre Swift.

“He’s still a really productive back,” Zimmer said. “He runs really hard. He was a great Viking here for a long, long time, and I’m just happy to see him still playing well. He still runs with the same violence, the way he hits the hole, the acceleration he has to the perimeter, all the things that he had when he was here.”

For most of his 10 seasons in Minnesota, Peterson was the NFL’s premier running back.

He led the league in rushing three times and in touchdowns twice. He won Rookie of the Year honors in 2007, when the Vikings took him five spots after the Lions took Calvin Johnson. And in 2012, he became just the third running back to win NFL MVP honors this millennium, when he fell 9 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record (2,105 yards).

Naturally, Peterson was a star at an early age, and Nelson, who played college basketball at Idaho State, said he and Adrian laid out a four-step plan to achieving greatness one day before Peterson’s junior season of high school.

Nelson Peterson was in federal prison at the time, convicted on charges of laundering money acquired from the distribution of crack cocaine, when he said Adrian came for a visit and brought with him a number of medals he won during his sophomore track season.

As the two sat in metal chairs around a table, Nelson challenged Adrian, who transferred high schools after his freshman year and missed his sophomore season of football, to not squander his massive potential.

“We set a goal for him to, ‘Hey, let’s be one of the best players in high school. Let’s be one of the best players in college. Let’s be one of the best players in the NFL. And let’s make the Hall of Fame,’” Nelson Peterson recalled. “So that’s the four-step program that we’re on, and so far, he’s made it.”

‘He’s the right now’

Peterson said earlier this fall that he hopes to play another five seasons, until he’s 40. He already is a lock for Canton, and if he makes it that long, he will have a chance to break Emmitt Smith’s career rushing record (18,355 yards).

Currently, Peterson ranks fifth on the list with 14,537 yards, behind Lions great Barry Sanders.

“We talked the other day and I was telling him, I said, we understand where he’s at in his career and we understand that he’s not the future, but he is the present,” Nelson Peterson said. “He’s not the future, but he’s the right now.”

In the right now, Peterson has seen his role and playing time fluctuate by week. He had 93 yards on 14 carries in his Lions debut against the Chicago Bears, and burned one of his old teams, the Saints, for 75 yards in Week 2. But his yards per carry have gone down every week this season and he had just five rushes for 7 yards in last week’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts. 

Lions coach Matt Patricia said he remains confident in Peterson’s ability, and noted that last week’s struggles spilled across the entire team.

“Last week was kind of rough for us in the run game as a group,” Peterson said. “We only had 11 (rushes by running backs), so that’s not what we really want, but unfortunately it kind of played out that way. My main focus is coming in, doing my job and when I get my opportunities, take advantage of them.”

Peterson should have plenty of opportunities Sunday against the Vikings, which didn’t happen in his first game back in Minnesota with the Saints in 2017.

Peterson, who said before that game he wanted to “stick it to” his old team, started but played just nine snaps and rushed for 18 yards on six carries in a 29-19 Vikings victory.

Last year, he made a more triumphant return with Washington, running for 76 yards on 14 carries and getting a rousing welcome from fans in a 19-9 Vikings win.

“It was two totally different experiences,” Peterson said. “The emotions I had with Washington when I got the standing ovation, it’s night and day. But this is like, hey, been there, done that. The unique thing is, here we are in the NFC North and these games count even double. So from that standpoint, it’s going to be good to get back there and pull off a W.”

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Peterson said this week that Sunday’s game “means a lot,” though he referred mostly to the division race and Lions’ place in the standings; at 3-4, they cannot afford a loss if they want to make a run at a wildcard spot.

Zimmer said he expects an extra-motivated Peterson on Sunday — “Adrian wants to show everybody every week, so that doesn’t change and probably a little bit more so when he’s playing the Vikings,” he said — and Nelson Peterson said that’s what the Vikings will get, even if his son played down his return.

“I got nothing but love for Rick Spielman, the Wilfs (who own the team),” Adrian Peterson said. “They have all done well by me, considering everything that we were able to go through during my time there. So for me, it’s like, when you have a family like that, you’re going to have disagreements, you’re going to bump heads and you might not talk for a minute, but at the end of the day, you come back around and you love one each other. So for me, that’s what’s going to always be.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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