Why Adrian Peterson, Vikings need to go in separate directions

·NFL columnist

Adrian Peterson is ready to move on from the past few months. He said as much last week as he exited a courthouse in Texas. In a stairway convoy with his wife, parents and led by his wing-tipped attorney, the conversation turned to moving on … away from his legal issues … forward as a father … back to his career.

Adrian Peterson has only appeared in the Vikings' opener this season. (AP)
Adrian Peterson has only appeared in the Vikings' opener this season. (AP)

He'll eventually get there as a professional – perhaps next week, when the NFL and players' union hash out his inevitable reinstatement. And presumably he'll go back to the Minnesota Vikings and finish out this season. But in a few months, when the offseason arrives, the inevitable should sink in.

Peterson and the Vikings would be best served to move on again – specifically, in opposite directions. And it should be mutual. The Vikings should be ready to let go, and Peterson should be ready to leave.

Sure, Peterson will go back to Minnesota. He can go back. He can work there again. But he can't ever truly be the Adrian Peterson that had anchored the franchise. On all fronts, it's a practical impossibility. There are too many legal cuts. Too many media bruises. Too many lingering questions about whether the fan base will ever look at him the same. And even on the football front, too much expectation and too little time for him to be the championship foundation in that franchise.

Factor in what has taken place over the past two months. Do the football math. Look at the state of the franchise. The realistic conclusion is that we've reached a natural breaking point. This is the moment when Peterson can and should be traded – maybe the last moment when everyone can walk away with something.

Indeed, there will be a market for Peterson this offseason. He's still seen as a player who can play at an elite level for another three years, with a solid fourth year to boot. For teams in a championship window, three years of Adrian Peterson can be the decisive raise in the Super Bowl stakes. A move that could round out the Arizona Cardinals' offense. Or sustain the New England Patriots at an elite level a few more seasons. He could bring together talented-but-broken Atlanta. He could remake Carolina or Washington, or transform Miami.

The price? Perhaps a first-round draft pick. Or maybe a draft pick and a player. Minnesota would walk away with some building blocks and mitigate any sponsorship impact. A suitor would get a trump card on offense and a healthy bump in ticket sales. Peterson would get a fresh start, with a fan base and media contingent that weren't caught in the middle of the recent ugliness.

Yes, such a trade is likely to be a prickly notion amongst some – though maybe a little more palatable than it would have been last offseason. There will be Vikings fans who look at Peterson and cling to him as the best running back in the NFL, the kind of player you don't trade. But lest we forget, there was a time that this fan base clung to Randy Moss as the best wide receiver in the NFL, too. Moss was traded, as he should have been, for a first-round and seventh-round pick, and a player.

It's a situation that's worth remembering. While Peterson and Moss weren't remotely similar people, the remains of their careers approaching 30 years old did bare a resemblance. There is an elite, but waning capability at their positions, with a few All-Pro seasons left before a rapid decline. There is an appetite for a Super Bowl-caliber run. And there is a need for a fresh start … new surroundings and new expectations.

Adrian Peterson leaves the courthouse with his wife Ashley Brown Peterson on Nov. 4, 2014. (AP)
Adrian Peterson leaves the courthouse with his wife Ashley Brown Peterson on Nov. 4, 2014. (AP)

Most important, there is a shared timing. Peterson is due (with a workout bonus) $13 million next season. That's a high number at the running back spot. Trading him would create that amount in salary cap savings, and only $2.4 million in dead money (the last leg of his prorated bonus). With a potential salary cap bump of $15 million this offseason, Peterson's departure would help crank a mountain of money into free-agent acquisitions for a team that is continuing to build. It would also create the opportunity to facilitate the growth of rookie third-round pick Jerick McKinnon, who has been impressive in Peterson's absence this season.

The timing of the salary-cap jump also creates a unique opportunity for suitors in the trade market. More teams would be able to absorb Peterson's contract without needing to rework the numbers. In theory, he could continue to earn at the top of the running back scale without taking a paycut. Which is very much in the best interest of Peterson at this point, considering the stunted contracts that have been signed by running backs recently.

Of course, just because the numbers are lining up and the opportunity is there doesn't mean this will happen. There is always sentimentality involved with players, coaches and owners. And there are politics, too: the Vikings will be opening a new stadium in 2016. Subtracting the best player on the roster before that happens is rarely ideal.

But a convenient moment for parting company will arrive in the next few months. And nobody involved appears interested in continuing the sideshow agony that has enveloped the franchise since August. Adrian Peterson is ready to move forward. Surely the Vikings are too.

Now each should realize that stepping forward can sometimes be better accomplished by moving apart.