MINNEAPOLIS -- Adrian Peterson smiled when he was asked if he hopes Sean Payton will have any "Adrian specials" designed for this week's game plan to help commemorate his return to Minnesota.
"Yeah, you know, any run play is an 'Adrian special' to me, because I'm gonna be trying to get every inch I can get when my number is called. So we've got some 'A.D. specials' in there," said Peterson, who will make his debut for the New Orleans Saints in the most dramatic possible setting -- against his former team on Monday Night Football.
Peterson -- who acknowledged that he'd like to "stick it" to every team, including the Vikings -- and Payton have both said all the right things this week. Peterson's return will be emotional and important to him, but all that really matters is winning the game.
Still, in a perfect world, Payton would love to find a way to put an exclamation point on that victory with a big night or big moment for Peterson, wouldn't he?
"That's a great question," said ESPN's Monday Night Football analyst, Jon Gruden, a former game-planning offensive coach himself. "I know Sean Payton certainly would, No. 1, like to get Adrian Peterson the ball and have him run for over 100 yards and score some touchdowns in his return. But he'd probably like a new car, too.
"I mean, you can't have what you want. It doesn't work like that. This is not a game where you can just go out and say, 'Hey, let's get it for Adrian.' They've gotta get [rookie running back Alvin] Kamara the ball because he is a great receiving back; he's dynamic in the open field. They gotta win this game. They have to win this football game because they have New England up the next week on a short week at home. This team needs to get off to a fast start."
When asked if he recalls a similar experience when he was a head coach, Gruden said, "Yeah, we did. We had Tim Brown come back and play in [Oakland with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004], and he got his 100th touchdown [catch]. Now, we lost, I think, 48-7, so who gives a damn?"
Actually, the Bucs only lost 30-20, but Gruden's point is still well-taken.
"I think Sean Payton is gonna check all those things at the door. He's not gonna worry about who touches it," Gruden said. "He's gotta fight that urge, but he's not a novice at this."
Other coaches who have been through similar experiences over the years agreed that "urge" exists to create some special moments for the player. But as former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick said, the execution is usually "subtle."
"As a coach, you do want to be aware of it, and you want to be responsive to the player ... and that shows the players that you're fighting for them as well," said Billick, now an analyst for the NFL Network, who had similar experiences in Baltimore with Shannon Sharpe, Steve McNair, Derrick Mason and Willis McGahee. "And from a personal standpoint, beyond just wanting the player to do well for himself, if you pick up a player like that and he doesn't play well against his former team, self-servingly there's a little bit of an, 'OK, were you wrong?' So you're looking for a little bit of validation."
"I know Sean Payton certainly would, No. 1, like to get Adrian Peterson the ball and have him run for over 100 yards and score some touchdowns in his return. But he'd probably like a new car, too."Jon Gruden
Dave McGinnis was in his third year as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2003 when they signed longtime Dallas Cowboys star Emmitt Smith to be a veteran leader for a young team. And McGinnis said, "Absolutely we were gonna use him, knowing well at the same time that they were gonna try to stop him."
"It's a whole different scenario [with Peterson than it was with Smith that year]. He's on a better football team. And Sean Payton is one of the best offensive playcallers in the business and a much more established head coach than I was at that point," said McGinnis, now an analyst for the Tennessee Titans. "But I can just tell you from my aspect of it, having Emmitt Smith on that football team and then going to play the Cowboys, it was a big deal.
"Emmitt was fired up to play, and our football team was fired up for him."
'This was supposed to be my day'
The most extreme example of a coach being in a tight spot while trying to get the ball into a legend's hands probably came Dec. 17, 2000.
It was Jerry Rice's final home game with the San Francisco 49ers. The whole day was set up to celebrate him, from Rice's daughter singing the national anthem to a stage that was ready to be rolled onto the field for a postgame speech.
Steve Mariucci, the 49ers head coach, said he scripted about 30 plays heading into the game, and about 17 of them were pass plays in which Rice was the first or second option.
But the opposing Chicago Bears weren't willing to play along. They swarmed Rice all day, and young receiver Terrell Owens wound up catching an NFL-record 20 passes for 283 yards and a touchdown. Rice settled for seven catches and 76 yards in a 17-0 win for the 49ers.
"I didn't even know that T.O. was close to a record until [a public relations vice president] came down on the field. I went, 'What?! What are you talking about?'" said Mariucci, who pulled Rice from the game with a few minutes to go so he could walk off to a rousing standing ovation from the crowd.
But when Rice came over to the sideline, Mariucci began to second-guess his planning.
"He said something like, 'Hey, I thought this was supposed to be my day,'" recalled Mariucci, who is now an analyst for the NFL Network. "And the crowd was going, 'Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!' [wanting him to come back on the field]. And [former 49ers coach] Bill Walsh was on the sideline with me too, and he was kind of privy to all of this. And I go, 'Oh, Bill, oh, my God.'
"He goes, 'Hey, man, it's your team. I'm out of this one.' He was laughing at me. He was enjoying the moment."
Mariucci caved. He put Rice back on the field, only to have him get blown up on a no-gain pass in the flat. So Mariucci second-guessed himself yet again, thinking, "What am I doing?" and deciding to take a knee with a few minutes left in the game.
"It's the first time in the world that a team started taking a knee and then changed its mind and threw a post pattern."Steve Mariucci on Jerry Rice's home farewell
But the chants persisted: "Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!"
"And I'm going, 'Oh, my God.' And so we threw him a frickin' post," Mariucci said. "I just threw my hands up and went, 'Screw it, let's throw him a deep ball.' And I'll be damned if he doesn't catch the post -- like a 30-yard gain or something. And then I said, 'That's it. Take a knee. I'm getting out of here.'
"It's the first time in the world that a team started taking a knee and then changed its mind and threw a post pattern."
'Just keep it about football'
Payton's history suggests he might try to create a special memory or two for Peterson if the game flow allows it.
Last year, for instance, Saints running back Tim Hightower scored two touchdowns in his return to Arizona, not to mention what Payton did to his former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, when Payton took over playcalling duties to orchestrate a 49-21 rout of the Los Angeles Rams. Drew Brees has had plenty of milestone moments over the years that Payton has at least kept in the back of his mind.
And a subtle classic came in 2007, when the Saints were facing former receiver Joe Horn and the Atlanta Falcons after Horn had been critical of Payton for letting him go. The Saints' new veteran receiver, David Patten, caught a career-high nine passes for 122 yards and a touchdown in that game.
But Payton insisted this week that he doesn't make a conscious effort to put the ball in a specific player's hands.
"I can't recall handing the ball to Tim Hightower and thinking to myself, 'He's back at Arizona, let's get him in the game,'" Payton said. "Some of it is just a feel for how the game is flowing. But we try to put the best plan together as we can. I think that with Adrian, obviously he's an important part of what we're doing as a running back. So we don't sit in there and say, 'Well, it's Minnesota, and therefore it's this, this and this.'
"Certainly, he'll be fired up to play this game. And I do say that every year [that these reunions come up on a weekly basis]. The following week, it's [Patriots receiver] Brandin Cooks coming home to New Orleans. Then give me a Week 3 game, Carolina, it's Ted Ginn's return to Charlotte.
"Now, when you take Adrian Peterson, who's obviously a special and a rare player and had a long, illustrious career in Minnesota, I think that brings more attention to it. And I understand why."
"I don't think it's very tough, because I think the player understands, the player wants to win. I know Steve Smith was this way, and I assume Adrian Peterson's the same -- what they really want to do is go up there and win," Harbaugh said. "Now, of course, great world-class athletes like that feel they can contribute and they can make a difference. So, of course, you want 'em involved in the game plan."
Harbaugh said he did talk to Smith about the importance of trying to control his emotions, though.
"Just keep it simple, keep it about football," Harbaugh said of his advice to Smith. "And Steve's a mature guy. But anybody who'd be in a situation like that, I think that's good advice."