Playing Peterson might not be worth risk

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
6:45
PM ET

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- So Adrian Peterson appears to have avoided the worst-case scenario with his right foot after feeling it pop a couple times when Baltimore's Arthur Brown tackled him on Sunday, huh? And he wants to try to play this Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, you say?

That might be an easy calculation in Peterson's world, where he -- usually correctly -- believes there is little he can't overcome with his freakish athletic talent and his relentless determination. But the Minnesota Vikings have much, much more to think about.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Mitch Stringer/USA TODAY SportsIt does not make sense for Adrian Peterson to return to a game this season.
Let's start with the nature of Peterson's injury, which was initially diagnosed as a sprained foot on Sunday. The reigning NFL MVP said most of the pain was in his mid-foot, which immediately raised the possibility he had suffered a Lisfranc injury (you're probably used to seeing that with the word "dreaded" in front of it). A MRI ruled that out on Monday, Peterson said, and it also showed no torn ligaments in his foot. X-rays were also negative, and Peterson said he was scheduled to have a CT scan for a deeper look at the bones in his foot. He was in a walking boot on Monday, but said the pain and swelling in his foot had already gone down since Sunday.

Even if the injury is simply a mid-foot sprain, though, Peterson could find that injury tough to return from before the end of the season. It caused Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray to miss six weeks in 2012, leading him at one point to wonder if he'd miss the rest of the season. Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew sprained his left foot in September after missing 10 games last season with a Lisfranc injury. He's only missed a game, but is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry this season, after posting at least 4.2-yard average in every season of his career before this one.

"What is often the case is, guys will feel much better [a day or two after a sprain]," ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell said. "They say, 'This isn’t so bad. I can walk around on it.' And then they try and run."

When that happens, Bell said, players will often find they can't push off with the same power they had before the injury. Movements that once seemed easy now feel laborious, and time that could be used to get a player healthy is instead spent with that player spinning his wheels.

Is that a good use of the final three games of Peterson's season, when the Vikings are 3-9-1 and out of the playoff hunt? Knowing Peterson, the Vikings will have a hard time convincing him he should sit, unless they can convince him he could do more damage by playing. But they've done it before, starting him on the physically-unable-to-perform list eight months after ACL surgery last year and resting him with ankle and knee issues in the final three games of a 2010 season that wasn't so different from this one.

They sent Peterson's test results to a foot specialist on Monday, and were still waiting for a report from the specialist as of Monday evening, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. It's quite possible that unless the specialist gives Peterson a clean bill of health -- and can convince the team he won't do any further damage by playing -- the Vikings will sit him down for their last three games. Two of those games are on Mall of America Field's synthetic turf, and the other one is on turf at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium, which was snowy on Sunday and could be again on Dec. 22. The Vikings will have to consider the effects of different surfaces, conditions and defenses on Peterson's foot, and determine whether there's anything to be gained from him playing.

It would seem, from here, that there isn't. Peterson has four years left on his seven-year, $96 million deal, and he will turn 29 next spring with more than 2,000 NFL carries already to his name. He'll spend his age-29 and age-30 seasons playing outdoors for the first time since college, and he could face wintry conditions on a regular basis for the first time next season. Unless the Vikings can assure themselves there's no risk of a foot injury hampering Peterson into the offseason, or even into next year, what's to be gained by playing him for three weeks?

They might not officially announce they're shutting him down, and with only three weeks left in the season, they might not have to. If Peterson is unable to run at full strength, time could have the final say without the Vikings giving something that could be portrayed as a concession speech on their season. But at the very least, I'd expect the Vikings to require Peterson to meet a high threshold of health before getting back on the field this season.

There's simply too much at risk, and too little to be gained, for anything less.

"It's sort of funny: We say, 'Oh, he doesn’t have [a torn ligament or a Lisfranc injury], so he’s fine.' There are a lot of shades of gray in between there," Bell said. "The working diagnosis is a mid-foot sprain. The worst-case scenario is something that requires immediate surgery, but the best-case scenario is something that heals on its own with rest and conservative treatment. They're letting him put a little weight on it. They're off-loading it a bit. But the subtlety of foot injuries makes it very, very difficult to say [how soon he'll be healthy]."

Ben Goessling

ESPN Minnesota Vikings reporter

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