Peterson, the NFL's No. 8 all-time rusher with 13,138 career yards, is Washington's backup to Derrius Guice. But the Redskins rarely have kept four running backs active in coach Jay Gruden's tenure. That means they want the backup to contribute on special teams; Peterson doesn't. Instead, Wendell Smallwood, claimed off waivers from Philadelphia a week ago, plays on multiple special teams.
"I don't think I've grasped it yet -- my first time being a healthy scratch," Peterson said after the Redskins' 32-27 loss to the Eagles. "It was tough. I'm a super competitor. I've been thinking about playing these guys since last year, since the season ended. It was tough not being out there. I have to make the best out of the situation. In that way I became a coach on the sideline helping the guys out as much as I could and cheering for the guys as well."
Gruden said there is "for sure" a place for Peterson on the team.
"We had a punt block and two returns on us in the preseason so we had to get the extra linebacker up for special teams and obviously [Wendell] Smallwood," he added. "It had to be done. If I can have the luxury of dressing four running backs or three some other time, if I have enough special teams guys then I'll do that."
Gruden said the arrangement is week-to-week, but since both Peterson and Guice are first- and second-down backs, the latter can handle the carries in those situations for now.
"If we have a game where we think we can run the ball 55 times in a game in I-formation then sure I'll get him up," he said.
The move angered some Redskins veterans, according to a source. Peterson is widely respected for his humility, work habits and history. He is tied for fifth on the NFL's all-time list with 106 rushing touchdowns.
"Yeah it's weird. We want him out there with us," fellow running back Chris Thompson said. "We know what type of impact he makes. We know the fear he puts still in defenses when he's out there on the field. But he's still tuned in and helping us out as much as he can with everything he sees out there. I know it's probably real tough, pretty tough for him."
Peterson, who signed a two-year deal in the offseason, knew there was a possibility of this happening.
"Of course it's not a role I want," he said. "Thirteen years in and I still got it. I've shown that I can play the game. But I'm not the owner. I'm just a player, so when they call me up, they call me up. I'm ready to play and for whatever reason I'm not playing, I can't control that. I don't know what to tell you or what to say."
Peterson also said he understood when he originally signed with Washington in August 2018 that it was because of Guice's torn ACL. Peterson rushed for 1,042 yards and seven touchdowns in 16 games; because of injuries in the second half of the season, Peterson was the Redskins' main focal point. He played with four quarterbacks and behind a line that was constantly changing because of injuries.
However, even late in the season, coaches talked about Guice and what they felt he could do.
"They drafted this kid in the second round; of course they want to give him a shot," Peterson said last week. "He's been working really hard to come back and get on the field. I'm paid to do what they ask me to do."
Still, it's an unusual spot for Peterson entering his 13th season. Two years ago he signed with New Orleans but lasted only four games. A few weeks after a widely viewed sideline exchange with Saints coach Sean Payton, New Orleans traded him to Arizona.
There was some debate in the Redskins organization about releasing Peterson a week ago, but it did not appear to have a lot of support, one source said. Regardless, he's now in an unfamiliar role -- one he's seen many others have in the past.
"That's why I have an appreciation for the grind and the process I've been through the last couple years," Peterson said. "I was in Minnesota for 10 years, I saw guys rotate through that building every year, have short stays. So me going through it towards the end of my career, it's not that big of a deal. Guys have made a livelihood of playing on different teams throughout the year. So I just embrace it and appreciate that I'm still in position to play after 13 years."