Since a devastating knee injury that put Adrian Peterson’s long-term career in realistic jeopardy on Christmas Eve of 2011 – although his heavily-sedated New Year’s Eve photos are some of the best Leon Spinks impressions ever – the Minnesota Vikings have made a concerted effort to eliminate the potential of Peterson getting injured in the preseason by shutting him down for games.
It was a plan that started with then-head coach Leslie Frazier following Peterson’s knee surgery and it didn’t end with Frazier’s firing. When Mike Zimmer was brought in, he brought along Norv Turner to be his offensive coordinator – the same Turner who sat star running back LaDainian Tomlinson for years in the preseason, opting to keep his offensive faceplate dormant until wins and losses mattered.
Zimmer was asked Thursday about the potential of playing Peterson in the preseason.
“I haven’t really thought about that yet,” Zimmer said. “I don’t know that there’s a need. Some of the different runs that we’re running, maybe it might be good to get him a couple reps. That’s part of the good thing about practicing against Cincinnati. I don’t have to see him in live things but I can see him in other situations.”
The Vikings will hold two joint practices with the Cincinnati Bengals on Aug. 10 and 11 before their preseason-opening game against each other on Aug. 12, but, despite some new wrinkles being added to the offense, Zim is likely more concerned about having Peterson on the field in January instead of August.
While Zimmer hasn’t given it a lot of thought, we have. We decided to take a look at the anti-benching argument that Peterson needs to get in “hitting shape” to start the season. Historically, leaner position players, like wide receivers and defensive backs, have sometimes been injured when they hold out of training camp, but at running back?
One example of how running backs don’t need to have a ton of preseason contact to succeed: Former Lions Hall of Famer Barry Sanders didn’t sign his rookie contract until about 12 hours before Detroit’s season-opening game. The Lions didn’t give him a full workload, but he ran nine times for 71 yards and a touchdown.
Sanders didn’t need preseason game reps to “shake off the rust.” Tomlinson didn’t. And, from the looks of things when you add up the numbers, neither does A.P.
Benching Peterson for the preseason was a practice the Vikings started in 2012, when he was coming off of the traumatic, invasive, multi-ligament, career-threatening knee surgery that had some questioning if he would ever be the same. For those who remember that training camp, Frazier joked that Peterson was in his ear almost every day of practice saying he wanted to test out the knee. Frazier refused to relent, despite Petersons’ protestations.
In the first two regular-season games, the Vikings kept Peterson on the football version of a pitch count. He had 33 carries in the first two games and, when the first four games were complete, Peterson had 79 carries for 332 yards and two touchdowns – topping 100 yards twice. When they finally took off all the restrictions, Peterson had the best run of his career. In the final 10 games, he had nine 100-yard rushing games (86 in the other), which included days with 153, 182, 171, 210, 154, 212 and 199 yards.
In 2013, the Vikings teased fans by allowing Peterson to start game three of the preseason at San Francisco. However, in a three-and-out drive Peterson never got the ball and came out at that point, continuing his streak of not rushing in the preseason. He didn’t show any rust that season either once the season started. He once again topped 100 yards twice in his first four games, finishing the quarter-pole of the season with 92 carries for 421 yards, 11 receptions for 52 yards and six touchdowns.
In 2014, the point became moot when Peterson was suspended after the first game of the season, rushing 21 times for 75 yards in a road win at St. Louis in Zimmer’s coaching debut before missing the remainder of the season.
In 2015, the numbers maintained their strength with Peterson having two 100-yard games, finishing the first four games with 75 carries for 372 yards and three touchdowns.
If you add up the numbers that Peterson has posted in the first four weeks of the season after being rested in the preseason, they effectively add up very similarly to not only his career numbers, but are eerily similar to his 2015 totals when he won the rushing title.
In 13 games in that span, Peterson rushed for 267 times for 1,220 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 32 passes for 226 yards and one TD. Extrapolating those numbers out for a 16-game season, the numbers translate to 329 carries for 1,502 yards and 12 touchdowns and 39 receptions for 278 yards and one TD. For the purposes of comparison, last season A.P. ran 327 times for 1,465 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 30 passes for 222 yards – essentially a dead heat with his first-month numbers. If you’re going to compare numbers and they’re equal to the type of season that wins rushing titles, it’s not too shabby.
For those who will be in attendance at the inaugural preseason Vikings game at U.S. Bank Stadium, there would be the inclination to give the first-test ovation when Peterson runs the ball. But, from the realistic sense, it wouldn’t kill anyone to let that ovation come when the national spotlight is on the Vikings when wins and losses count in the final standings.
The best news that the numbers can give us is that A.P. will be just fine despite not playing in the preseason. At his age, it’s best to conserve the potential of big hits to be put off until his yards actually start being tied into his career total. If you’re going to catch Emmitt Smith, preseason yards don’t count, don’t matter and shouldn’t be expected.