About three months ago, according to ESPN senior writer Don Van Natta, a friend of Jerry Jones put the Dallas Cowboys' owner on the phone with Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson. Per Van Natta's reporting, in that phone conversation Peterson said he would love to play for the Cowboys one day, a sentiment Jones carefully concurred with.
Whether that conversation constituted tampering, and no matter if it reflected a whim or a fervent desire on Peterson's part, its revelation opens the window for a real discussion about the remainder of Peterson's career. I believe he was genuine this summer when he said he plans to "let it ride" in Minnesota, rather than push to play elsewhere, but I think we are looking at his future through the wrong lens.
To put it simply, Peterson's departure from Minnesota isn't up to him. In the NFL, teams wield full power over player movement, be it a superstar like Peterson or the No. 53 man on the roster. No matter what Peterson wants, he won't leave until the Vikings decide they're done with him.
Such is the harsh truth of the NFL. Peterson is a future Hall of Famer who is two years removed from the second-best season by a running back in league history. Since the start of 2012, he has gained 3,363 yards and scored 22 touchdowns. But Peterson has also played seven rough-and-tumble seasons at football's most brutal position, and at 29 he is two years past the age when most running backs begin a production decline. (Here is an April post with more detail on that topic.)
.Though Peterson is the game's highest-paid running back in 2014 with a $12 million salary, he is essentially in a rolling deal with no future guarantees. As the chart shows, if the Vikings release him after this season, he would count just $2.4 million against their salary cap.
Put it all together and you have a player who should recognize that his future with the Vikings, at least at his current pay scale, is year to year. If his production decreases in 2014, will the Vikings want to pay him $13 million in 2015? That salary dwarfs the running back market, which is at an all-time nadir. In 2015, the average running back salary will be $1.3 million. Peterson would be one of only two running backs making as much as $8 million.
I can't say for sure that Peterson has contemplated that scenario yet, but I would bet the house that his advisers have. Peterson grew up in Texas, and if there is any owner who would overpay an aging running back for entertainment value, it's Jerry Jones. Whomever put Peterson and Jones on the phone, however reckless it might have been, surely understood those dynamics as well.
Both the Vikings and Peterson issued statements Wednesday afternoon, and they're notable as much for what they didn't say as for what they did. The Vikings noted they are "focused on the 2014 season," and Peterson said: "This was a casual conversation between NFL colleagues in which I never indicated I wanted to leave the Vikings. I have always said I understand the NFL is a business but that I would love to retire as a Viking."
Pointedly, Peterson didn't deny telling Jones he would like to play for the Cowboys someday. In his mind, no doubt, Dallas would be an ideal landing spot if he ever reaches free agency.
The Vikings, of course, hope that day never comes. They want Peterson to continue as an elite offensive player, one whose production matches the 11-digit salaries his contract calls for over the next four years.
If not -- if he succumbs to the NFL's near-inevitable running back decline -- then they will have a business decision to make. Peterson could well have trade value, but often in such cases, possible suitors sit tight and await a release. He could also agree to a pay cut, as painful as that usually is to the pride of most superstars.
Hall of Famers from Johnny Unitas to Joe Montana to Marcus Allen to the Cowboys' own Tony Dorsett have finished their careers with new teams. It's part of the business. No one faults Dorsett for playing with the Denver Broncos in 1988. Does anyone even remember it? I wouldn't be surprised, and it appears Peterson wouldn't either, if his name joins that list.