Alex Smith and Adrian Peterson sat a few feet away from each other as fresh-faced college players at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York in late 2005 and never imagined this would happen.
Twelve NFL seasons later for Smith and 11 for Peterson and they're now in the same backfield together with the Washington Redskins.
The 34-year-old quarterback acquired by trade in February and 33-year-old running back signed off the street during the preseason have each been around the block a few times and now bear the expectations of trying to get Washington back to the playoffs.
“I think the sky's the limit,” Peterson said. “I feel like we can really be an explosive offense.”
For a team that has embraced continuity, including coach Jay Gruden going into his fifth season, the turnover from Kirk Cousins and a running game by committee to Smith and Peterson represents a huge shift.
The Redskins believe Smith will better be able to command the offense that includes Peterson, now-healthy tight end Jordan Reed, receivers Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder and Paul Richardson, and third down back Chris Thompson.
From the first day of training camp, Smith has looked the part as the long-term answer at quarterback the way Cousins never did because of his predecessor's series of one-year deals. It helped that the Redskins signed Smith to a $94 million, four-year extension to make him their man.
Likewise, Peterson took only a couple of days of practice to look as if he passed Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley as the top running back after second-round pick Derrius Guice tore the ACL in his left knee and changed the franchise's course for this season.
Smith is coming off the best season of his career when he threw for 4,042 yards, 26 touchdowns and five interceptions with Kansas City. He doesn't want to label this his so-called “prime,” but Smith appears to be in the midst of it.
“I still feel like my best football is ahead of me certainly,” Smith said. “I still feel like I have been ascending. I still feel like I haven't reached my potential, which pushes me, challenges me to continue to strive to get better. I still feel like I am a young 34-year old and I do have a lot of ball ahead of me.”
Peterson has a lot of tread on the tires as the 12th-leading rusher in NFL history and had his past two seasons cut short by injuries. One workout was enough for Gruden to believe Peterson still had something left, and 11 carries for 56 yards in his preseason debut showed everyone else a glimpse of the 2012 league MVP who ran roughshod in purple for so many years with Minnesota.
“Having him on the team, it's a joy,” said left tackle Trent Williams, a longtime friend of Peterson's dating to their time together at Oklahoma. “It's a dream come true. I'm happy to see him, and I know we'll open up some lanes for him. So I know he's going to shine.”
Peterson will occasionally catch younger running backs staring at him in disbelief and is proud he inspired some of them with his career. Smith similarly has the resume to earn immediate respect from teammates, who are ready to line up with him and Peterson to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2015 season.
“They both are very respected veterans in this league for a reason, for their work ethic and playing abilities,” Reed said. “We've got two great players on our team, and they're perfect fits for what we need.”
Some things to watch with the Redskins this season:
The run defense and pass rush should be much-improved with second-year lineman Jonathan Allen healthy and the addition of Alabama teammate Daron Payne, the 13th overall pick in the draft. Allen had his rookie season cut short by a foot injury, and Payne didn't miss a step after injuring his left ankle early in camp.
“He's a big-time player,” linebacker Mason Foster said of Payne. “Really athletic, has a great grasp with the defense already. Just a physical freak so, playing behind him is going to be great.”
Josh Norman is going into the third year of a $75 million contract with just three interceptions for the Redskins and none last season. His abilities as a cover cornerback are unquestioned and mean he gets fewer opportunities, but Norman also dropped a handful of potential interceptions in 2017 and is being counted on — and paid — to make that kind of a difference in a young secondary.
“It's just that six inches from making a play to not making a play,” Norman said. “Touching (your) hands, DB rules you got to have it.”
With a combined 804 yards and six touchdowns rushing and receiving, Thompson was Washington's secret option last season before breaking his fibula in November. Thompson is still trying to overcome the mental hurdle about making cuts on his right leg, but just being on the field is a plus.
“Chris Thompson is a key asset to our offense,” linebacker Preston Smith said. “He's a great (running) back; he brings a lot of different tools to the offense.”
The Redskins are 0-4 in season openers under Gruden, who was also criticized for their performance in a potential win-and-get-in game against the New York Giants who had nothing to play for in Week 17 in 2016. Gruden played it safe in the preseason by resting players coming off injuries to avoid a similar problem to a year ago, but with a difficult schedule on paper, Washington needs a strong start at Arizona and against Indianapolis to contend for the playoffs.