Already a top cornerback and return man, Patrick Peterson is expanding his role in Arizona
This is an article from the Sept. 9, 2013 issue
A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
There are no windows in the garage at Patrick Peterson's home in Chandler, Ariz., just black painted walls to help keep in the cool. On top of a car lift rests a gutted 1991 Monte Carlo eight feet in the air, seatless, engineless and rusted over. It's Peterson's reclamation project, a hobby that began when he was a kid in Pompano Beach, Fla., admiring his father's '79 Oldsmobile Cutlass and then really took off after he signed his first NFL contract two years ago. Working on cars now serves as an escape on Tuesdays during the season. Someday soon the Monte Carlo will be a racing machine.
For Peterson the Cardinals are a lot like his prized Monte Carlo, in need of some serious restoration and repair. An All-Pro kick returner as a rookie and a two-time Pro Bowler (as a returner in '11 and as a cornerback in '12), Peterson is being asked to help turbocharge almost every facet of Arizona's game. He'll return punts, shadow the opposition's best wide receiver and get increased reps as a pass catcher out of the slot. "After you see the athlete he is," first-year coach Bruce Arians said, "it's like the guy could be one of the top five receivers in the league."
New general manager Steve Keim doesn't stop there, noting that Peterson has stood flat-footed at the team's training facility in Tempe and thrown a football 70 yards. "From an ability standpoint I've never seen anything like him," Keim says. "He's the closest thing in the league to a Bo Jackson, a Deion Sanders."
It's true that Peterson, 23, is something of a natural. Two years ago he started playing golf and now scores in the 70s. (He became so enamored with the game that he installed a putting green in his backyard and a fairway simulator in his house.) Yet the high praise and lofty expectations speak as much to his makeup as to his ability. Meeting Peterson is to sample a refreshing cocktail that mixes the bravado of a playmaker with the humility of a coach's son. In one breath he waxes on the importance of the defensive line. In the next he claims he's the best cornerback in football and thinks he can win the MVP award—not the one they give to defensive players, but the MVP, the one Vikings running back Adrian Peterson won in 2012.
"Now that Coach Arians is giving me the opportunity to play both offense and special teams," he says, "I'll have the best opportunity to capture that dream of mine."
Peterson's MVP dreams began during his sophomore year at LSU when he met assistant Grady Brown. Now the secondary coach at South Carolina, Brown remembers Peterson's explosive talent but thought he lacked a certain edge. As a freshman cornerback Peterson had 41 tackles and even picked off Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson in a 27--21 overtime loss to the top-ranked Crimson Tide. But in Brown's eyes Peterson was far from a finished product, on or off the field. He had "LeBron James--and Kobe Bryant--type talent," Brown says, but he sometimes took plays off in practice. His classroom effort and punctuality fluctuated as well.
"He was blessed with tremendous talent, very respectful, but may not have realized how good he could be, in all things," Brown said. "I relayed that to him. I tried to put pressure on him to dominate every aspect of his college day."
Soon after his heart-to-heart with Brown, Peterson's attitude improved. He showed greater consistency, refusing to allow an opposing wide receiver to catch a single ball in one-on-one drills. His grades climbed, with Brown checking on his attendance until there was no need to.
He finished his days on the bayou with 135 tackles and seven interceptions, leaving after his junior year to go fifth in the 2011 draft. He then set the NFL rookie record for most punt-return yards (699) and tied the alltime mark for punts returned for scores in a season with four.
The following year he blossomed as a cornerback, picking off seven passes and showing improved cover skills. In the second quarter of a December game against the Jets, Peterson was trailing Chaz Schilens down the middle of the field by five yards. He closed the gap and made a diving interception off a muffed Mark Sanchez pass. "No one else could have made that play but Patrick," says Arizona safety Rashad Johnson. "He had the recovery speed to get on top of the route and then the hand-eye coordination to see the ball bounce off the pads and catch it. I turned and looked to the guys next to me like, How in the world did he catch that ball?"
Peterson's only real missteps in 2012 came in the finale against the 49ers, when a miscommunication on zone coverage allowed receiver Michael Crabtree to break free for a 49-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. Later in the third, Crabtree got a step on Peterson to score a red zone touchdown in an eventual 37--13 loss. That capped a dismal 5--11 season, leading to the firing of G.M. Rod Graves and coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Now, Arizona is starting over with Keim, Arians, new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and a new quarterback in nine-year veteran Carson Palmer. Even in the face of transition and uncertainty in the locker room, Peterson remembers Brown's lessons. "He thought top-notch guys should carry themselves as top-notch guys," Peterson says, "and that's what I continue to do."
That mentality places Peterson in the Arizona desert every summer, sometimes donning all-black sweatpants and long sleeves in 115° heat to trim what little pudge exists on his 6'1", 220-pound frame. It has been this way since he was a boy, working out for his father, Patrick Sr., a speed coach, in Boca Raton, Fla. He taught Patrick Jr. all of the game's skill positions when he was seven years old, then in his teenage years steered him to defense and to his love of cars, often taking Patrick Jr. to drag-strip shows in Palm Beach where he learned about fuel injection and auto body work.
"In ninth grade I was a running back, a quarterback and a wide receiver; then my dad made me be a cornerback," Peterson recalls. "He said, 'I'd rather you deliver the hit than take it.' "
For the last 11 years Patrick Sr. has trained college athletes for the NFL combine, plus NFL pros and high schoolers, all of them looking to get faster. This year he took on a special project, troubled former LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu.
In 2009, Patrick Jr. was hosting Mathieu on his campus visit when another student asked Mathieu, a hot prospect from New Orleans, "Who are you?" Mathieu told him his name and position. Gesturing toward Peterson, the student asked, "Are you going to be better than this guy?" Mathieu didn't hesitate: "Of course." Impressed with his confidence, Peterson took Mathieu under his wing.
Peterson was a rookie in the NFL by the time the one-time Heisman finalist sunk into depression and failed enough drug tests to get kicked off the Tigers (SI, Oct. 22, 2012). Still, Mathieu stayed in touch with Peterson, spending a lot of time with Peterson's family during stretches of his year away from football. Patrick Sr. required Mathieu to take periodic drug tests if the NFL hopeful wanted to continue their training. Patrick Jr. also gave him instruction in preparation for the 2013 combine. "Pat's like that with all kids," Patrick Sr. said. "He sees Tyrann as a kid deserving of a third chance."
Rocking his signature frosted gold hair and answering questions about his past for the media and teams, Mathieu fascinated Keim at the combine. The G.M. visited Peterson at his locker afterward to get the player's take. Says Peterson, "I told him straight up, 'He [Mathieu] was young and he made a mistake; I think he's learned from it.' "
During Day 3 of the draft, Keim texted Peterson two selections before the Cardinals were to pick 69th: "If your boy is still there. We're gonna take him." Keim kept his word.
"That was one of the most exciting days of my life," Peterson says.
Now Peterson can once again be a hands-on mentor to Mathieu, who had 12 tackles and a sack in four preseason games. With a general manager's hopes, a coach's enabling and a father's dreams stuffed into the backseat, Peterson is happy to get started on yet another reclamation project.
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