GLENDALE, Ariz. — Adrian Peterson emerges from the shower—one white towel around his waist, one wrapped around his shoulders—and takes a seat in a chair placed in front of his locker. Then he begins to shake hands. Teammates in various states of undress, team officials decked out in Arizona Cardinal red, men in tailored suits who look important, come up to the running back and pay their respects like a procession. They reach out, pat him on the back, lean in and whisper something in his ear. Peterson smiles, and they walk on. Then the process repeats itself.
It’s about 15 minutes after the Cardinals beat the Buccaneers 38–33 in an incredibly wacky game at University of Phoenix Stadium. It was an important win for Arizona, bringing their record back up to .500 and keeping them alive in the tight NFC West race, but the day belonged to Peterson.
The running back dresses in all Adidas gear and walks through the press conference doors to the assembled media. In this moment, you are half expecting the running back to stand up and quote Mark Twain—yes, the reports of my death were greatly exaggerated. Instead he is asked about the trade that brought him to this team, to this city, to this moment, a game in which he rushed for more yards than he had in nearly two years. He smiles. One-hundred and thirty-four rushings yards, two touchdowns and an innumerable amount of critics silenced will do that to you. How did he feel after he heard about the trade?
“I was rejuvenated,” he says. “Even my wife could see it. It felt like a boulder lifted off my back.”
We all know the story: Peterson finished his 10-year career in Minnesota last season with only 72 total yards after he suffered a torn meniscus in the team’s third game. Then the Vikings chose not to pick up his option, and the Saints signed the future Hall-of-Famer. Initially, many in the football universe derided the move as a poor fit, but as the offseason went on, they attempted to convince themselves that maybe, possibly, it could work, despite the drastic schematic change and the fact that the Saints had two other capable backs on the team.
And then the season started and the experiment played out worse than probably anyone even expected: four games, 27 rushes, 81 total yards, and one infamous .gif of the running back looking disgusted at Saints coach Sean Payton during his first game with the team. It was clear the marriage had failed; the only question was how protracted the divorce would be.
Then last Tuesday Peterson got a text from a friend, prompting him to put on his TV. That’s when he saw that he had been traded to Arizona. “It was like, Thank you, Jesus,” Peterson said earlier in the week. “My prayers got answered.”
But the Cardinals might have needed Peterson as much as the back needed the team. After losing David Johnson, their star running back, in Week 1, Arizona ranked dead last in rushing yards and yards per carry through the first five games. The most any rusher on their team had gained in a game this season was 44 yards by Chris Johnson in Week 2, and in three of their five games they didn't have a back gain more than 23 yards. In contrast, Peterson had 54 yards on his first drive, which he capped with a 27-yard touchdown run—showing flashes of the old AP, the one we had all already buried and proclaimed dead. It was all there: the patience, the explosion, the rare combination of power and elusiveness as he burst through a hole and left a trail of defenders futilely chasing him. Sure, Tampa Bay’s poor defensive performance certainly helped Peterson’s performance. But that one carry would have been the third-best game for a Cardinals back this season.
On his flight down to Arizona, he was going through the Cardinals offense, and Peterson later said the playbook was so complex that it looked like a foreign language to him. But he stayed up till 3:30 that night studying and hasn’t stopped since. He came into this game feeling confident that he had already learned most of the complex scheme, the third he’s been playing in just this past year. A few times in the huddle on Sunday, Carson Palmer went to remind the new back of his assignment and Peterson cut him off and told him that he was good, he got it.
“He picked it up so fast,” the quarterback says. “I’m excited to see the wrinkles that [coach Arians] builds into the offense because we haven't had Adrian Peterson. And there is only one of those.”
Larry Fitzgerald is happy Peterson is here, too, and he’s also maybe the only person in the country who was not surprised with the back’s performance today— “we’ve seen this movie before,” he says. “There’s a reason his nickname is AD. He’s an all day performer.” The two first met in 2003 at the Touchdown Club of Columbus awards banquet when the receiver was the college player of the year and the running back was the high school player of the year. When Fitzgerald heard the news of the trade, he told—didn’t ask, but told—his old friend that he was moving into his guest house. The living arrangement is apparently going well, because the only issue the receiver sees is that Peterson hasn’t been in Arizona longer; in the 2007 draft, the Cardinals passed on the back with the fifth pick to choose tackle Levi Brown.
“I wish he’d have been here from the beginning,” Fitzgerald says. “I’d have a Super Bowl ring already.”
Back on the press conference dais, Peterson is asked if, as he was rumbling through defenses and scoring touchdowns again, he was thinking about the Saints who gave up on him, or about his detractors who claimed he was washed. The running back smiles and genuinely considers the question.
“Not at all, to be honest,” he says. “But after the game a couple things went through my mind.”
Peterson doesn’t elaborate on what those thoughts were, but he does offer this. When he scored that first touchdown, the 27-yard, throwback-to-the-old-AP play to cap the team’s first drive of the game, he thought to himself, That’s one. Why? Because on Friday his son scored two touchdowns in his flag football league, bringing his total on the season up to six scores. So, naturally, Peterson’s son started to talk a little smack, asking his dad how many touchdowns he had this year.
“I don’t got none,” Peterson said. “I’m going to catch up, though.”
Nobody would have believed that just yesterday. But after Sunday’s resurrection, Peterson’s son may want to hold back on the trash talk, at least for now.