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Ring of dishonor?: The far-reaching impacts of Patrick Peterson’s suspension

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Patrick Peterson was once destined to be among the most honored Cardinals of all time. Now his legacy is in jeopardy in the wake of his PED suspension. Let’s take a look at the myriad impacts of this thorny situation.

NFL: NFL Honors-Red Carpet
Embattled Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson in better days.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, it was announced that former starting QB Carson Palmer would be inducted into the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor. The ceremony to honor Palmer will take place during halftime of the Week 4 game against the Seattle Seahawks. Michael Bidwill, Steve Keim, and the rest of the top brass will be there, as should several other Ring of Honor members, like Palmer’s friend Kurt Warner. And Palmer will surely be feted all week by former teammates like Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson.

But one big-name Cardinal will be nowhere to be seen.

Patrick Peterson.

Peterson is, obviously, suspended the first six weeks of the season and is not allowed to be with the team during that time. His absence will be especially conspicuous as the team celebrates Peterson’s former teammate.

That got me wondering—will we ever see a Ring of Honor ceremony for Pat Pete? It seemed like a foregone conclusion just a couple months ago. Now? I’m not so sure.

This story has yet to play out fully, but it’s clear that Peterson’s suspension will have far-reaching effects. Let’s take a look at the impact the suspension could have, both on and off the field, in 2019 and beyond… as well as the impact it could have on Peterson’s legacy here in the desert.

Impact in 2019

I want to start by saying that I think the potential effect of Peterson’s absence on the field has been greatly understated, both among fans and the media. Peterson is a true CB1 whom opposing offenses have to account for every week. The effect of removing a player of that caliber from a defense is impossible to overstate. Plus, Peterson has never missed a game in his career, so we’re truly in uncharted territory here. As a result, I think the Cardinals pass defense is *really* going to struggle during his suspension.

Fortunately, the schedule during the first six weeks isn’t too daunting. Here are the six teams (and QBs) that the retooled Cardinals CB corps of Robert Alford, Tramaine Brock, and Byron Murphy will face during Peterson’s suspension: home vs. Detroit Lions (Matthew Stafford), at Baltimore Ravens (Lamar Jackson), home vs. Carolina Panthers (Cam Newton), home vs. Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson), at Bengals (Andy Dalton), home vs. Atlanta Falcons (Matt Ryan). If the Cardinals are going to get out of the NFC West basement, they’re going to have to take advantage of this relatively easy early-season slate.

I see only two big “problem” games in that six-game run: the Seahawks game and the Falcons game. Wilson is always a handful, and Ryan and Julio Jones have roasted this team before even with Peterson in the lineup. We’ll probably already be home underdogs in those games, but any chance of an upset likely vanished with Peterson’s suspension.

Of the rest, Stafford is always a threat to put up big numbers, but the Lions don’t have a true WR1 you have to account for, so the Redbirds should still have a good shot in that game at home even without Peterson. The Ravens’ WRs are even worse and Jackson is a work in progress as a passer, so the secondary shouldn’t be taxed too hard in that game. The Panthers game will depend on Newton’s health, but their WRs aren’t too imposing either. And while Dalton and the Bengals still have A.J. Green, they’re also going through a rebuild with a new coach. I think Alford, Brock, Murphy, et al., will be able to hang tough in these matchups—although you’ll probably want to get those opposing WRs in your fantasy lineups.

With Peterson, I could see three or even four wins (with an upset) in the first six games. Without him, I think we’re looking at a 2-4 start at best. And even when Peterson is back, it might take him a couple weeks to acclimate to real game action in Vance Joseph’s new defense… and the schedule only gets harder from there.

Of course, this is all assuming Peterson even suits up for the Cardinals this season. There’s a definite chance the team trades him at some point—whether before the season, during his suspension, or in the short window between his reinstatement and the trade deadline. What we could get for him is a matter of speculation, but the possibility has to be considered.

However, anything we could trade him for wouldn’t be as valuable this season as 10 games of Pat Pete shutting down opposing WR1s. A Peterson trade would likely doom the pass defense in 2019, especially in an absolutely brutal back half of the season. I know the secondary is a strength of this team, but it’s just not built to withstand an extended absence from Peterson.

I think Steve Keim would be foolhardy to trade Peterson unless he gets a godfather offer—think multiple early draft picks and/or young players—from a contender. Of course, there’s the rub, as who wants to sell the farm for a player who’s gonna miss almost half the season? So it may be that reports of Peterson’s Cardinals demise are premature.

If so, the trade rumor mill will fire up in 2020 once again. Speaking of which…

Impact Beyond 2019

Things get hazy here since there are so many unknowns: Will Peterson even be on the roster? Will the Kliff Kingsbury/Kyler Murray experiment be a failure or success? How will Byron Murphy develop? Etc., etc.

But we do know two things: If Peterson is on the roster, he’ll be in the last year of his deal (barring an unlikely extension before then), and QBs tend to take a leap in Year 2, so it’s reasonable to expect the team to take a true step toward playoff contention in 2020.

These two factors could dovetail nicely if Peterson is motivated in a contract year and Murray takes a Jared Goff-like leap in Year 2 to push the Redbirds toward the playoffs. Of course, Peterson would need to be on the roster for this to happen—and the lack of an All-Pro CB could scuttle that hypothetical turnaround. Could that be another reason for Keim to keep Peterson rather than trade him? I just don’t see the Cardinals making a playoff push in 2020 without Peterson anchoring the pass defense. (I know, I know, this is all very hypothetical.)

That said, Peterson might also have more trade value in 2020 with the suspension behind him and strong play once he returns—as well as the prospect of the team that trades for him signing him to a lucrative extension. Maybe that’s when Keim gets the godfather offer he’s been waiting for? Such a haul might help finalize the rebuild and make the Redbirds contenders for years to come.

Alternately, the Cardinals could decide to sign Peterson to that lucrative extension themselves. (Or even franchise tag him for $16M+.) Although recent history has shown that shutdown CBs start to decline around age 30 (see: Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman), such an extension would make it likely that Peterson retires as an Arizona Cardinal.

But is Peterson worthy of such an extension and honor? That brings us to our final—and our thorniest—discussion.

Impact to Peterson’s Legacy

The Patrick Peterson story starts in Week 1 of the 2011 season in a matchup against fellow rookie Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. I was at that game (I had season tickets that year), and I watched Newton shred Peterson and the secondary for a then-rookie-record 422 yards passing. But I also watched Peterson score the game-winning touchdown on a punt return halfway through the 4th quarter. That was the first of two game-winning punt return TDs for Peterson that season—he also beat the Rams on one in overtime a couple months later, also in front of the home crowd.

Peterson made the Pro Bowl as a returner that season. To date, that has been the only season in his career that he hasn’t made the Pro Bowl as a CB.

That electrifying rookie season—and the near-decade of top-flight CB play that followed—endeared Peterson to Cardinals fans. And, up until last season, his reputation was sterling*: excellent play on the field, strong leadership in the locker room, and a gregarious and giving personality off the field.

(*Side note: No, I don’t care about his reputation as a lazy tackler—which has never stopped the team from fielding an elite defense around him before—nor about the various “diva” comments that have sometimes cropped up around him. Prior to his suspension, all 31 other NFL teams would have loved to have him on their roster. Full stop.)

Then, last season, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, Peterson requested a trade during the season. The trade request was quickly retracted, and he later apologized for it, but the shine on Peterson’s reputation had already begun to dull a bit. Then came the cryptic social media posts during the draft and the early absence from OTAs.

Finally, the hammer dropped with the announcement of a six-game suspension for PEDs. And now Peterson’s once-hallowed name is tainted and his legacy as an Arizona Cardinal—if not league-wide—is in question.

Or is it?

The PED thing is definitely a huge hurdle to overcome, but getting busted for PED/steroid use doesn’t seem to be the reputation death knell it once was. Even known cheats like Barry Bonds and heavily suspected ones like Roger Clemens are starting to see their reputations improve in recent years even among the draconian MLB media.

This is especially true in the NFL. Just ask Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman. And you could build a Pro Bowl roster out of players suspended for PEDs in recent seasons—almost all of whom were welcomed back to their teams without comment or hesitation. Even league golden boy Peyton Manning has faced PED accusations with little to no consequences (although after his playing career was over). Like it or not, PEDs/steroids just aren’t as big a deal as they used to be in the public eye.

Peterson’s situation is a little more tricky, most importantly because we still don’t know exactly what illegal substance he was found to have taken. But we do know that part of his suspension is reportedly for using a masking agent, which is not a good look. Then there’s also the semi-plausible explanation that the PED use was somehow related to his diabetes. Maybe you believe that, maybe you don’t... but I’m not sure it matters much given how blasé the public’s reaction to steroids has become in recent years.

And honestly, I’m in the same boat—given what these guys put their bodies through, I don’t think I care too much about what they put into those bodies. Think of that what you will, but I know there are a lot of other fans who feel that way.

So what does all this mean for Peterson’s legacy? That obviously remains to be seen, but for now, Peterson is doing and saying all the right things—apologizing, showing up to OTAs, generally trying to stay out of the spotlight.

The most important next step is getting back on the field—and playing well once he gets there. Even better would be winning. Tough to do given the rebuilding team and challenging schedule, but the cologne of winning can mask a lot of malodorous misdeeds—as Edelman, Tom Brady, Robert Kraft, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Ray Lewis, and countless others well know.

It’s pretty clear to me that if Patrick Peterson comes back and has a few more solid seasons—whether here in the desert or elsewhere—he’ll follow the same career trajectory of those mentioned above. I think this PED suspension will prove to be more of an unfortunate footnote in an illustrious career than a scarlet letter he’ll have to wear for the rest of his days. To wit:

  • There is no doubt in my mind that Peterson will be enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. Could the suspension keep him out on his first ballot? Sure, I could see that (in a weak year). But he will one day be fitted—rightfully—for a gold jacket.
  • Peterson will continue to make Pro Bowls—although likely not in 2019. That’s just a logistical eventuality of missing over a third of the season. But he’ll probably be right back on the Pro Bowl roster in 2020… whether for the Cardinals or another team.
  • My money is on it being for the Cardinals though. I don’t think Keim will trade him just to trade him at this point—which is almost what he’d have to do given his suspension. Perhaps he gets traded after this season, but I think Keim and Michael Bidwill will find a way to keep him in the fold in 2020 and beyond.

Final Thoughts

Let’s get back to Peterson’s Ring of Honor chances. Will he one day see his name and number alongside legendary Cardinal defensive backs Night Train Lane, Roger Wehrli, Larry Wilson, Aeneas Williams, Adrian Wilson, and Pat Tillman under the lights of State Farm Stadium?

That last name might give people pause—“An American hero and a known PED user in the same Ring of Honor?”—but that’s empty moralizing and patently weak equivocation. Sports teams in general and the NFL franchises in particular are not and have never been particularly concerned with morality, occasional hypocritical public displays to the contrary notwithstanding.

So, yeah, I think Patrick Peterson will one day take his place among Cardinals greats in the Ring of Honor. He’s been too good for too long at a time when the public seems to care less and less about PED issues.

His name may be tinged with dishonor now, but he has time and talent enough to make all but the most sanctimonious of the morality police—and remember, his transgressions have nothing to do with the actual police—forget about this dark chapter in his legacy.

I think he’ll be deserving if and when he joins the Cardinals Ring of Honor. Do you?