Dougherty: Packers should pursue Peterson

Pete Dougherty, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
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Note to readers: A paragraph in an earlier version of Pete Dougherty’s column that included a reference to Peterson’s punishment of his 4-year-old son being connected to America’s history of slavery was removed. It was poorly reasoned and insensitive. We apologize to all readers who were offended.

INDIANAPOLIS - Ted Thompson should make a play to sign Adrian Peterson.

Not that the Green Bay Packers general manager will try. It would be un-Thompson-like if he enters the bidding when the Minnesota Vikings set Peterson free in a week, as they’ve told the running back they will. The smart money says Thompson won’t pursue.

But it’s straight out of the Ron Wolf playbook, the kind of brash, calculated risk that helped make Wolf the Pro Football Hall of Famer he is today.

We all know Peterson isn’t the nearly-unstoppable player he was in his prime. He’s damaged goods and will turn 32 in March, which means that for a running back he’s an old man. The fact is, in the NFL personnel book almost everything about him screams, “Do not sign.”

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Except that he’s a singular talent who even with all the “buts” and “what abouts” could meaningfully improve the Packers’ chances of winning the Super Bowl in 2017 if he can be had at the right price and used in the right way.

This just is not your usual running back. Normally, you’d be leery of a 28- or 29-year old at that position, let alone 32. But Peterson is a one-off. He’s as physically freakish as anyone ever to play the position. His 2,097-yard rushing season in 2012 after returning to game action only eight months after undergoing knee-reconstruction surgery tells everything you need to know about his uncommon physical gifts.

In that way, I’d liken him to Julius Peppers. When the Packers signed Peppers in ’14, he was too old (34), except that he wasn’t. He was a talent worth risking an exception. That’s the case with Peterson, too.

I asked three NFL pro scouts about Peterson this week, and all said they think he still has something left in the tank. Two predicted he’ll have two more good seasons. I’m sure this is far from unanimous in league circles — a tweet from Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report quoted an unnamed GM in the league as saying Peterson has lost his burst and is only “serviceable” now — but I’m betting it’s a mistake writing off Peterson now.

Of course, Peterson isn’t the player he was a few years ago. He has a lot of miles on him (2,418 carries) and missed 13 games last season because of cartilage surgery on his knee. You also have to harbor some concern that when he played last season he wasn’t very good — he averaged only 1.6 yards on his 31 carries before getting hurt against the Packers in Week 2.

But that’s a small sample in about 1½ games for a guy with his pedigree. So while you can’t dismiss it, in the end it’s not enough to convince me he can’t do it for at least another year.

I’ve also seen all the reports about what a bad blocker he is in blitz pickup, and how he’s much better running with a fullback in front of him, and with the quarterback under center, than in a one-back set in shotgun or pistol.

But if I were the Packers, I wouldn’t sign him as an every-down back anyway. Ty Montgomery and a 2017 draft pick still would get their share of snaps, too. And if you have to take snaps under center with Peterson in the game, then you adjust the play calling. Because if Peterson does have something left, just think how much he and quarterback Aaron Rodgers would help each other just by being on the field at the same time.

Obviously, cost is a big issue. The Vikings aren’t renewing Peterson’s contract option because he’s scheduled to make $18 million this year. I wouldn’t pay him half that. But an agent I talked to who has a running back in free agency this year estimated that Peterson could be had for a two-year deal that averages about $5 million plus incentives. One scout also thought that was a good ballpark figure.

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For that price, if I’m the Packers, I’m going for it. Maybe other teams would pay more — the Vikings remain interested in re-signing him — but the Packers can offer playing with Rodgers and competing for a Super Bowl. It seems to work for the New England Patriots and Tom Brady. It could work here.

Now, to the elephant in the room: Peterson’s guilty plea on reckless assault for disciplining his 4-year-old son with a switch in 2014.

You’ve probably seen the photos with the welt marks on the child’s legs. The images are brutal. To say it’s unacceptable is an understatement.

But does it make signing Peterson a non-starter? This is a tough call, but I come down as a no.

Really, I see some similarities here with Michael Vick.

I’m a dog lover, and words can’t convey how appalled I am at dog fighting. It’s beyond comprehension how someone could raise and train man’s best friends to fight to their death for spectator sport. It’s sick.

A part of me thinks that people caught running dog-fighting rings should be put in a cage and forced to fight to the death themselves. What’s fair is fair.

But of course that would be wrong, too. So Vick served his time in prison. Did it change him? Does he really think dog fighting is wrong now? Who can say? Human beings are great actors, and how do you peer into someone’s soul?

But Vick paid a big price — lost freedom, millions of dollars in lost wages and a wrecked career. Once he was out of prison, I can’t say I was against his return to the NFL. There’s a line that’s too far, and I can’t tell you exactly where it is. But that wasn’t it in my mind.

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As for Peterson, society is changing fast, and obviously for the better, on many things, including disciplining children. I’m 55 and have friends about a generation older who say corporal punishment in school was routine. That’s not that long ago.

This is learned behavior.

Peterson, like Vick, paid his penalty. He took a plea bargain in a Texas court and was suspended by the NFL without pay for the final six games of 2014.

Is he a changed man? Does he deep down feel he did anything wrong? Who can say? But there are no reports he’s been in trouble with the law since.

While his behavior as a father three years ago was unacceptable, it alone isn’t reason enough to keep him off a team.

So Thompson should look seriously into signing Peterson with the Packers. He probably won’t try. But he should.

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