There is always discussion about the ability of running backs to perform at a high level after the age of 30. For most, 30 is a brick wall that is impacted with high speed and the results tend to be disastrous. It has happened so consistently that it has become “a thing.” Only the elite can buck the trend. There’s no questioning that Adrian Peterson is an elite back who still has a lot of good football left him.
But does he have a lot of elite football left in him?
In the year he held a garish birthday party – who knew he had a camel guy on speed dial? – to celebrate his 30th birthday, A.P. won the NFL rushing title with 1,485 yards and seven 100-yards rushing games.
Perhaps more telling is that the Minnesota Vikings win when Peterson is fed the ball. In the two years that Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner have been with the Vikings, the team has a record of 18-14 in the regular season. In the 17 games they had Peterson at their disposal, they’ve posted a record of 12-5. In the 15 games without Peterson, they are 6-9. It’s hard to dispute those numbers.
It’s also difficult to dispute the success the team has had when Peterson runs the ball 18 times or more. In his 17 games of the Zimmer/Turner era, he has rushed 18 times or more in 13 games.
The Vikings are 12-1 in those games.
In the four games Peterson has rushed 16 times or fewer, the Vikings are 0-4.
You can’t fight win-loss numbers. Teams can be ranked first to last in yardage numbers, red zone stats, third-down efficiency or a myriad of other “second level” stats, but no statistic is more telling than winning and losing.
By that measure, few players are more effective than Peterson.
But, as the season wore on, either defenses found ways to control Peterson or A.P. wore down.
Through the first nine games of the season, Peterson was well on his way to winning the rushing title. He had 195 carries for 961 yards and five touchdowns. He was averaging 22 carries for 107 yards and 4.9 yards per carry. The Vikings were 7-2 in those games.
In the last seven games, the Vikings posted a 4-3 record, but had stockpiled enough wins that their road win at Green Bay in Week 17 gave them the division title.
In the final seven games, Peterson had 134 carries 524 yards and six touchdowns. That worked out to an average of 19 carries for 75 yards and 3.9 yards per rush.
What made it more troubling was that the standard answer to questions about Adrian leading the league in carries of one yard or worse has always been that you don’t steer away from Peterson because he can break off a 50-yard touchdown run at any time.
That didn’t happen down the stretch. Of his 134 carries in the final seven games, only three of them went for more than 20 yards, not to mention being bottled up throughout the playoff loss to Seattle.
It’s hard to bet against the defending NFL rushing champion, but it appeared to be obvious that Peterson wasn’t the dominant player he has been since 2007 down the stretch run of 2015. Argumentative types can make the case that nobody consistently rips up defenses when they’re playing eight men in the box to stop Peterson. The problem with that argument? Ask Peterson about facing eight in the box.
His answer? He has faced eight defenders in the tackle box every game of his career since high school. It’s the downside of dominance.
As the Vikings move into their new stadium this fall, they do so with Peterson as their offensive faceplate. He’s under contract and the contract is mostly guaranteed on March 11. He isn’t going anywhere in 2016.
But will his role have to adjust in 2016? If his numbers to close out 2015 are any indication – four losses in eight games, including the playoffs – the Vikings may be forced to make changes to the focus of the offense.
Zimmer said Peterson will remain the focus, and there’s no questioning that Peterson is the dominant running back of his era. When he set the single-game rushing record less than two months into his rookie season, he did so with the Big Back On Campus (LaDainian Tomlinson) on the other sideline. At that point, Peterson became The Man.
Nine years later, he still holds that distinction. His bust in the Hall of Fame can be made now because it’s not a matter of if he will be inducted in Canton; it should be five years after he plays his final down.
But as the Vikings are sizing up players at the Underwear Olympics – a.k.a. the NFL Scouting Combine – they likely will be giving running backs a harder look this year than they ever have because we may have seen the best of Peterson. He’s still the pre-eminent running back in the league, but those big plays that we’ve witnessed for nine years are coming fewer and farther between.
The reality is that Vikings fans should appreciate Peterson while they can because there is a chance that 2016 is his last year with the Vikings. It won’t be his last NFL season – he wants to play five or more seasons – but it may be his last in Minnesota.
It may not simply be about money, which is always an overriding NFL concern. It may be more about his wearing down at the end of seasons, which happens to players as they get older.
A.P. will be on the Mount Rushmore of Vikings players perhaps forever, but expect to see the Vikings looking to the future to find the poor player who will have to walk in those 20-carries-a-game cleats as Peterson’s replacement.
He likely won’t be drafted in the first three rounds this year, but don’t be shocked if Rick Spielman and/or Turner see a value player they envision as the eventual replacement.
The NFL is a business and preparing for the future happens in the present.