What is the measure of a franchise player? For quarterbacks, it's measured in wins. For defensive ends, it's sacks. For wide receivers, it's receptions and touchdowns. For running backs, it's the number of carries that makes the difference.
In a season where passing records are falling right and left throughout the league, the Vikings have found an old-school way of measuring their own franchise player, Adrian Peterson. In his fifth season, there is little questioning that Peterson is having another solid year that may just be beginning.
Most bell cow running backs use 20 carries as the measure of success. In his rookie season in 2007, Peterson had six games in which he ran the ball 20 times or more. In 2008, that number swelled to 10 times as Peterson established career bests in carries (363) and rushing yards (1,760) that remain his high-water marks in both categories. Perhaps because of the arrival of Brett Favre and changes to the passing game, Peterson's numbers dropped in several major categories. In 2009, his number of 20-carry games dropped to eight and, in 2010, that number dropped to six. It would appear the Vikings were getting diminishing returns from their star player.
In the previous three years, Peterson's attempts dropped each season (363-314-283) and so did his yardage total (1,760-1,383-1,298). It seemed as though the Vikings were part of the league-wide trend of running backs being less important to the offense than they had been. However, in the Frazier Administration, not only was Peterson locked down to a long-term contact symbolizing his position as the team's franchise player, he's backing it up on the field and has a chance to put together career-best numbers.
At the midway point of the Vikings season, Peterson has 167 carries for 798 yards and nine touchdowns. Extrapolated over a full season, Peterson would have 334 carries for 1,596 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. Those numbers would represent the second-highest totals in both carries and yards and tie his career high in rushing touchdowns.
Through eight games, no running back has more carries than Peterson. Next in line is Maurice Jones-Drew, who is only one carry behind at 166. Is it coincidence that both players line up behind rookie quarterbacks? Probably not, but they have proved to be the exception rather than a rule in a league that used to be dominated by franchise running backs.
There was a time not long ago when 20 carries a game was the norm for a team's go-to running back. Through eight games for the Vikings (and seven games for much of the rest of the league), Peterson is one of just three running backs averaging 20 carries a game (along with Jones-Drew and Frank Gore).
The big games that marked Peterson's early career have also returned in 2011. In 2008, he shattered the franchise record with 10 100-yard rushing games. In the two years that followed, he topped 100 yards just seven times – three times in 2009 and four times in 2010. He has already topped 120 yards three times this year and would have had a fourth 100-yard game already to his credit had he not collided with Donovan McNabb on a botched snap late in the season opener with San Diego.
At a time when quarterbacks and the passing game are dominating the NFL, the Vikings are taking an old-school approach to offense, saddling up their star running back and riding him as long as they can. The 20-carry-a-game plow horse has largely been replaced by the running back-by-committee. As the NFL game has evolved, the value of running backs in general has been diminished. However, the value of a true game-changer has actually increased. If a team can find a player capable of 20 carries a game and the toughness and longevity to do it year after year, it is a rare commodity.
The Vikings knew they got a gem back in 2007 when Peterson fell to them with the seventh pick of that year's draft. Four-and-a-half years later, there is no questioning that Peterson is arguably the greatest player in that draft, which also included Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson. He is quickly building a Hall of Fame résumé and, if the first half of the 2011 season – the first under Leslie Frazier – is any sign, the best of Peterson may well be yet to come.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Vikings riding Peterson as much as ever
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