Peterson’s red zone carries on the decline

Adrian Peterson was once the king of rushing touchdowns, but last year he wasn’t even in the top half of the NFL. His decline could have simply been a result of the play-calling.

There are certain statistics that can be telling both from a team and individual standpoint. Perhaps none more telling than the Adrian Peterson “red zone” numbers.

We’re all familiar with the red zone. It’s universally interpreted as the area of the field inside the 20-yard line. Both team stats and quarterback stats are kept for their success or failure in the red zone.

But when it comes to running backs, it’s a different story. When a quarterback drops to pass from the 20-yard line in, the reasonable expectation is that, if executed properly, the play could go for a touchdown. If a running back gets a handoff on the 12-yard line, there isn’t a reasonable expectation that play will go for a score.

In running back terms, the red zone is about the 5-yard line.

Peterson is viewed by Vikings fans as the exception to the rule in that regard. He’s regarded by a relatively significant portion of the Vikings fan base of being able to score each and every time his hands get around the ball. But his numbers in the “running back red zone” speak to A.P.’s success, the team success and offensive philosophy.

There are only two numbers that matter for running backs in their version of the red zone – carries and touchdowns. In 2013, Marshawn Lynch carried 25 times in the RBRZ and scored 10 touchdowns. Jamaal Charles had 17 carries and scored nine times. Eddie Lacy scored nine times on 13 carries. Peterson ran the ball just eight times and scored four TDs.

It marks a reversal of fortune that was pronounced both on the individual and team level. There is a school of thought that says if the Vikings have a first-and-goal situation from the 5-yard line, if you give Peterson the ball three times, a touchdown is virtually guaranteed. But that hasn’t been the case.

You can’t count Peterson’s rookie season in 2007 because, at the time, the Vikings weren’t sure how to handle their new weapon and Chester Taylor was given the majority of the red zone carries, leaving Peterson with just three carries and two touchdowns.

In 2008, Peterson took over the role, carrying nine times from the 5-yard line and scoring five touchdowns. The Vikings’ quarterbacks, Gus Frerotte and Tarvaris Jackson, threw just seven passes in the RBRZ.

Then came Brett.

In 2009, Brett Favre threw 18 passes from inside the 5-yard line. He completed 12 of them and 10 of those went for touchdowns. Peterson ran a whopping 30 times inside the 5, scoring on 14 of them. The fact they combined for 48 plays inside the 5-yard line speaks volumes to the firepower of that team, but it cemented Peterson’s place as the true face of the franchise despite the largesse of No. 4.

In 2010, Peterson carried 18 times in the RBRZ and scored 10 TDs. Favre and T-Jack combined to throw just nine passes – not only a 2:1 ratio of run-to-pass, but a drop of 19 plays from the year before.

In 2011, Peterson’s season ended with a devastating knee injury, which lowered his numbers, but, he had just 11 RBRZ carries and scored six touchdowns. Yet, despite missing time, the Vikings QB tandem of Donovan McNabb and Christian Ponder combined to throw just eight passes. It again proved the Peterson dominance factor (in the Childress regime) as well as the declining number of opportunities.

Prior to 2012, a coaching change took place and Chilly and his offensive mindset were sent packing. He was replaced by Leslie Frazier and the Vikings offense was turned over to Bill Musgrave. Whether by caution or design, even as Peterson went on to have one of the most prolific running seasons in NFL history, when it came to sealing the deal, he was given the ball in the RBRZ 11 times and scored six TDs. At the same time, Ponder threw the ball 16 times and scored nine TDs – the first time since A.P.’s rookie season that he wasn’t the main man when the Vikings were knocking on the touchdown door.

In 2013, Peterson had just eight carries inside the 5-yard line and scored four TDs – both career lows. The combination of Ponder and Matt Cassel threw the ball 10 times and scored TDs on just three of them.

To put Peterson’s numbers in perspective, 23 running backs had more RBRZ carries than him last year, including Willis McGahee, Mike Tolbert, Joique Bell, Zac Stacy, Rashad Jennings, Rashard Mendenhall, Michael Bush and Montee Ball – who was second on his own team.

The good news for Vikings fans is that Norv Turner has coached two of the most prolific goal-line hogs in the history of the NFL – Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson. Regardless of the talent in the passing game, when Turner has a running back who can finish what the offense started on the other end of the field, he isn’t shy about putting a bit in the mouth of his thoroughbred and telling him to do what he does best.

Some may view Peterson’s declining RBRZ numbers as a sign of his career going in the wrong direction, but the timing of his decline in the red zone may have been as much about the offensive play-calling as his age. Let’s hold off on a rush to judgment until we see what Turner has in mind.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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