Yesterday, reports out of the NFL Owners meeting in Phoenix indicated that Mike Zimmer has emphatically stated "We have no plans to trade Adrian Peterson." This has been the missing phrase from all of the official Vikings comments about Adrian Peterson for the past several months. If you've lost track of some of the commentary from the Vikings brass about Adrian Peterson, let me take this opportunity to essentially recap all of the official "statements" about Adrian Peterson's situation from the moment he reached a legal resolution with a plea deal. As you'll see, one side of the equation has been slowly tweaking their public comments and reaction, while the other has been pretty much saying the same thing the entire time.
Back in November, almost immediately after Peterson reached a plea deal of no contest to misdemeanor charges for injuring his child, the Vikings offered a rather timid response, first saying:
November 4th, 2014: "The Vikings are aware of today's plea agreement involving Adrian Peterson. We will have further comment at the appropriate time."
Up to this point, the Vikings had already lost sponsorships, Peterson's image was tarnished in the media and we had gotten very little commentary from the organization about the whole ordeal, other than to essentially say "no comment until his legal status has been resolved." After his plea deal fueled rampant speculation in the media that Peterson might be able to return to the field during the 2014 season, the Vikings released this statement, almost a week after the last one:
November 10th, 2014: "In regards to Adrian Peterson's status with the Minnesota Vikings, at this time his potential reinstatement is under NFL guidelines. As an organization, we respect and understand the league's process. In the interim, our focus is on the team and preparing for this weekend's game against the Bears."
It took a full two weeks for the league to react to the news of Peterson's plea deal and but once it was announced that Peterson was going to be suspended indefinitely, with the earliest date for reinstatement being April 15th of 2015, the Vikings continued their non-committal, political rhetoric:
November 18th, 2014: "The NFL has informed the Vikings of today's decision regarding Adrian Peterson. We respect the league's decision and will have no further comment at this time."
Within days of the suspension news, Peterson held a phone interview with Tom Pelissero of USA Today, where he first voiced a desire to return to the field, but also expressed speculation of "support" from the organization and first mentioned a desire for a fresh start elsewhere. Peterson said:
November 20th, 2014: "I would love to go back and play in Minnesota to get a feel and just see if my family still feels comfortable there," Peterson said. "But if there's word out that hey, they might release me, then so be it. I would feel good knowing that I've given everything I had in me. I would have to get back in the community and get a feel. I know who loves me. The coaches and the players, it's not going to be a problem. I've felt so much support from those guys. The organization, I know there's people in the organization that support me and there's people that I know internally that has not been supporting me." But Peterson also said he has given a lot of thought to the idea that "maybe it's best for me to get a fresh start somewhere else."
There were almost no public comments from Vikings officials or Adrian Peterson after that November 20th interview for nearly a month. Peterson appealed the suspension, but a "neutral" arbitrator ruled against the appeal on December 12th. The media speculated that Peterson wanted out of the Vikings organization, and that the Vikings were sure to trade or release Peterson at some point. Who can blame them for connecting what few dots were provided? After being hounded by media at every press conference and deferring commentary for weeks, at the conclusion of the Vikings 2014 season, coach Zimmer finally made official remarks expressing mild support for Adrian Peterson and ultimately just wanted some resolution to the whole thing, saying:
December 30th, 2014: "I think obviously he's a great running back, and if it works out that way and things work out and he gets his life in order -- that's the most important thing, he gets his life in order, he gets the opportunity to come back -- then I will be in his corner whatever the decision is made. We would love to know ASAP [if Peterson will be back or not], just so we can start going because, a guy like him, your football team and your offense can be different (if) you have him and you don't have him. It's how you want to build the team around him, at least in my opinion, anyway. I haven't talked to [GM] Rick [Spielman] about a lot of these questions that you're asking yet because we just finished the season, but we'll sit down and we'll visit about all of this stuff."
It seemed clear from Zimmer's comments at that point, that the Vikings were not sure what was going to happen with Adrian Peterson. But even in Zimmer's comments, he didn't emphatically state "I want Adrian Peterson on my team next season." There was no black and white answer given, he spoke mostly about "being in Adrian's corner" on "whatever decision is made". In other words, Zimmer took the Switzerland approach and remained neutral. In the case of Peterson's return, Zimmer will support him. In the case of his trade/release, Zimmer can wash his hands of it and claim to have been "in his corner" the whole time. But that statement was seemingly lacking from the outside observer perspective. It certainly was a far cry from being emphatic support for Peterson's return. Likewise, the franchise as a whole certainly hadn't voiced any true support for Adrian Peterson's return at this stage in the game, and it was over 3 months after news broke of the incident, and over a month since he was officially suspended.
Almost two weeks later, Rick Spielman broke a nearly 4-month silence with the following statement:
January 15th, 2015: "I don't know if there's a team in the NFL that wouldn't want Adrian Peterson on their football team. If you can name me one ... and I don't want to speak for other teams ... but I know that he's a pretty good football player. I know that Adrian is a good person, just being around him," Spielman said. "I know he's done a lot of good in this community. What he did — he just came out and said he made a mistake. As Zim had stated earlier, he has to get all that in order and then we'll proceed from there. The only thing I would say about Adrian is Adrian's maybe one of the most unique players I've ever been around, where everybody had talked about, well, he's not going to be the same after his ACL (injury in 2011), and that was his best year coming back from that. Knowing Adrian, I know that he is going to want to come back and play — he's going to play at a very high level when he comes back. I'm anticipating that, just knowing Adrian from what he's done in the past."
Again, those are carefully chosen words, and like Zimmer's response come across as very tepid support (if at all) of Peterson. Nowhere does Spielman just come out and state, "We want Adrian Peterson on our team next season." In fact, his comments literally mention how much OTHER teams might want Peterson on their team saying, "I don't know if there's a team in the NFL that wouldn't want Adrian Peterson on the football team." Well, how about the Vikings? Would they want him on their team? Because he doesn't come out and say that either. So while both Coach Zimmer and GM Spielman offered tepid public support for Peterson in their first public comments, both statements leave the door open for a possible trade or release.
In early February, Adrian Peterson had his federal appeal hearing and was "upbeat" after said hearing and gave a very short "of course" answer when asked if he would like to return to the Vikings. That short answer was seemingly at odds with his earlier comments.
Vikings ownership, who had until this point remained silent on the issue, expressed the following viewpoint with Mark Wilf saying the following:
February 12th, 2015: "Well, there's a lot of legal matters playing out with Adrian," Wilf told the Star Tribune. "Coach [Mike] Zimmer and Rick [Spielman] have spoken that Adrian is a Minnesota Viking and we appreciate what he has done in the community. We understand that he has to go through some processes personally, but sure, we would like to have him back."
As you can see at this point, the tune had begun to transform. What was first almost complete silence on the issue, morphed to tepid support to finally having an owner say "sure, we would like to have him back." It took almost three months for the Vikings organization to come out publicly and state "we want Adrian Peterson back." Up to that point it had been half-hearted attempts to say things like "I'm in his corner" to "there isn't a team that wouldn't want him" and the like. Later, Rick Spielman again addressed the issue with Adrian Peterson at the NFL Scouting combine, expressing mild support, but also leaving open the possibility of parting ways with Peterson, saying:
February 18th, 2015: "Adrian Peterson's under contract with us and he's a very unique player. I'm sure Adrian is doing everything he can off the field. He's a suspended player right now, and uh, we'll see where it goes from there. There's no question, and I've said this before, there isn't any team in the NFL right now that wouldn't want an Adrian Peterson-caliber player on their football team. I expect when Adrian Peterson comes back that he's gonna come back with a point to prove to everybody."
Perhaps most of the media read too much into Spielman's comments, but there was a distinct lack of "we want Adrian Peterson back" or "we plan to have Peterson on our team next season" in his commentary. Despite the words expressed by Mark Wilf a week prior to the combine, this latest statement from Spielman did nothing to quell an overwhelming number of rumors and speculation that the Vikings were trying to trade Adrian Peterson.
Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Adrian Peterson had won his federal appeal of the suspension. The team released this official statement:
This was the most emphatic response by the organization up to this point, and each statement from the organization has expressed a slightly stronger desire for Adrian Peterson to return to the team. At this point, the NFL began its appeal of the federal ruling to overturn his suspension, and while that process continues to play out, Peterson was placed back on the Commissioner's Exempt List. But this meant that the Vikings and Adrian Peterson could finally talk to each other, because his suspension was overturned. Shortly thereafter Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer traveled to Texas for the infamous "bro hug" moment for their first face-to-face meeting since the suspension. Peterson released these public comments through his agent after a nearly 4-hour meeting:
March 4th, 2015: "I appreciate Rick and Coach Zimmer coming down to see me today. We had a great dialogue and they were able to understand where I was coming from, concerns my family and I still have. We respect each other and hopefully the situation can pan out so that everyone involved is content."
Those statements caused quite a frenzy in the media, especially the phrase "concerns my family and I still have", suggesting that Adrian Peterson wants out of the Vikings organization. it appears the Vikings rhetoric is moving in one direction: increasingly wanting to keep Peterson in the fold, while he is moving in another: wanting out. Then on the eve of free agency, Peterson flew out to New York to meet with Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, fueling further speculation that the Vikings might be discussing possible trade destinations with their disgruntled All-Pro running back. As free agency began to unfold and no trade materialized, on March 14th Peterson's agent informed Ian Rappaport that the Vikings informed him that they have no plans to release Adrian Peterson. This meant the team basically now has two options: keep Peterson or trade him. Of course, the media had a heyday with that announcement, and rumors and speculation about possible trades of Adrian Peterson flew fast and furious.
That brings us to the past couple of days. At the NFL owners meeting, Peterson's agent Ben Dogra began to move further in the opposite direction making the following statement:
March 23rd, 2015: "I don't think it's in Adrian's best interest to play in Minnesota. Why would it be?"
As Adrian Peterson and his agent's public comments move further and further away from a desire to continue performing on the field as a Minnesota Viking, Spielman and Zimmer's comments move in the opposite direction affirming an even stronger desire to have Peterson return to the team. Mike Zimmer made the following public statement yesterday at the owners meeting:
March 25th, 2015: "I'm not going to speculate on what he wants or doesn't want, but Adrian's under contract for three more years with us," Zimmer said. "That's why you sign those contracts, that's why you get these big bonuses, you know? We're planning on him being here. We have no plans to trade Adrian."
This latest statement from Zimmer is the most emphatic statement of support for Peterson that has been given to date. And you can see the evolution of the Vikings stance on Adrian Peterson evolve over the course of the last 5 months from essentially "no comment" to "any team would want him" to "sure we want him back" to "we won't release him...we won't trade him." On the flipside, Peterson's comments have essentially been a constant refrain of being "uneasy" to "still concerns" to "not in my best interest", etc.
So, what do we make of this ongoing public drama that is not unlike an episode of Real Housewives of "Wherever?" I think there are essentially two ways to think about it. The first take is that the Vikings have always wanted to keep Adrian Peterson, but were not able to voice such a position back in November due to widespread condemnation of Peterson's actions in the media. This could explain why they have slowly evolved their stance and position gradually over the course of many months to express more and more a desire for Peterson to return. While that sounds good, I remain skeptical that this is what happened.
The second way to read this is that the Vikings have been trying to orchestrate a trade for Peterson the entire time, and have not been getting the deal that they want. They expressed tepid support initially in order to have plausible deniability if a trade never surfaced. And now that the prime time to have made a trade has passed, they are putting the full court press out saying "we won't release Peterson" and "we aren't planning to trade Peterson" and "we want him back" and the like. One could easily conclude that they are only now expressing this because a viable trade partner hasn't been found.
Ultimately I believe scenario #2 is what is unfolding. And this could potentially lead to a hold-out by Adrian Peterson if he truly does not want to return to the Minnesota (and statements by him and his agent lead me to believe this is true). But for me, the uneasiness isn't so much about Peterson having to face the Minnesota media, or that he wouldn't be welcomed back by enough fans or teammates: it's about money. He knows that if he can be traded, his contract would have to be reworked and he potentially can get more guaranteed money for the next few years. Anyone with half a brain understands that Peterson is 30-years old, and has maybe 2 years (at best) left of solid production. Peterson has enough of a dead money hit this year that the Vikings can essentially keep him for one more year to see what he might have left, and then cut ties easily next year or restructure based on what kind of shape Peterson is in both mentally and physically. His dead money number is $0 after the 2015 season which makes a release or restructure of Peterson's contract in 2016 seem very likely. There is no way the team is going to take on Peterson's increasing cap hit in 2016 and 2017, and releasing a 31-year old Adrian Peterson with maybe 1-year left of production is a lot easier to stomach than a 30-year old Adrian Peterson who sat out of football last year and arguably has a couple of seasons left in him.
But this whole situation of the suspension gives Peterson another reason to potentially want out of Minnesota. He'll play that card as long as possible, when in reality the issue is more than likely about money. So, expect a messy hold-out from Adrian Peterson with the team continuing it's refrain of him being "under contract" and "we won't trade him" for the remainder of the offseason. Unless a team is willing to give up a 1st round pick for Peterson (and that seems very unlikely at this point), I expect the team will play hard ball with Peterson and force him to honor his contract and call Peterson's bluff as the fines and penalties for "failing to report" are significant. And if I were in the Vikings position, I would do the same thing. The resigning of Matt Asiata and the signing of DuJuan Harris, scream to me "emergency backup plan" by the Vikings in the case that Peterson does hold out for a contract extension/trade.
We may never know the truth behind all these public statements, but I believe if we read between the lines and follow the facts, we can uncover the truth, because: