NFL Players Asked to Carry the Weight of the Team on Their Shoulders

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NFL Players Asked to Carry the Weight of the Team on Their Shoulders
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The NBA is the only major team sport in which one star can make or break a team. Teams in The Association go 12 deep and put only five players on the court at a time. That allows the likes of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to almost almost single-handily lead a team to contention. 

At least the vast majority of the time, that isn't the case in the National Football League. While teams are built differently, they still need talent throughout their rosters to contend for a Super Bowl. 

There are, however, a few exceptions. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning seem to make everyone around them better. They turn marginal players into above-average starters and seem to be able to squeeze water from a stone. 

Here are a handful of similar NFL players, followed by an explanation about why teams ask such players to shoulder such a heavy load.

 

Adrian Peterson, Running Back, Minnesota Vikings 

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

If Peterson gains another 400 rushing yards in his final three games, he will join a select group of running backs to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. What makes Peterson's performance so amazing is that he is less than a calendar year removed from tearing the ACL and MCL ligaments in his left knee. It was just a few years ago that this type of injury could have been career-ending. 

Not only did Peterson miss the final game of the 2011 season due to this injury, he missed three other games for Minnesota during its disastrous 3-13 campaign. All said, it was the worst statistical season of his  career. 

While we can draw our own conclusions about why the Vikings had their worst season since 1984, I am pretty sure it is because of Peterson's injury and inability to shoulder the load. 

2012 has been different altogether. Minnesota is 7-6 and right in the thick of the NFC playoff race. For his part, Peterson is averaging just more than 24 touches and 139 total yards per outing. To say that he has been a valuable cog in the Vikings' offense is an understatement. After all, he has 43 percent of their total yards through 13 games. Let's check up on the best running backs in the NFL and how they compare to Peterson in this category. 

Player Team Percentage
Adrian Peterson Minnesota 43
Doug Martin Tampa Bay 35
Jamaal Charles Kansas City 32 
Marshawn Lynch Seattle 32
Arian Foster Houston 27
Frank Gore San Francisco 26

 

It is surprising that in a passing league five of these six players are on teams that are over .500. There are, of course, other dynamics that come into play here. In Peterson, the Vikings have one of the best running backs we have seen in a great while. It also has a second-year quarterback who can't be considered anything more than a game manager at this point in his career. 

On average, Christian Ponder attempts only six more passes per game than Peterson has touches. This seems to indicate that offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, despite being a former quarterback, understands fully where the Vikings' strengths are on offense. 

At 27 years of age and with more than 1,800 touches in his career, we have no idea how much longer Peterson will be able to keep this up. One thing is clear; No. 28 carries one of the largest burdens in the NFL on his rebuilt left knee. 

 

Peyton Manning, Quarterback, Denver Broncos

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Throughout his career, Manning has consistently made those around him so much better. He is, in nearly every possible way, the Michael Jordan of the NFL. Manning has made the likes of Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez, Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark into Pro Bowl-caliber players when he was their teammate. Needless to say, that group of skill-position players doesn't represent the best the league has to offer. 

Look what happened to the Indianapolis Colts when Manning went down prior to last season with a neck injury. After nine straight seasons with at least 10 wins, Indianapolis fell to 2-14 and finished with the worst record in the NFL. 

Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos were in the midst of a mediocre season that saw them win the AFC West despite winning just eight games. Tim Tebow, taking over as the Broncos starter in October, led the 25th- ranked scoring offense and 31st-ranked passing offense. 

After defeating the banged up Pittsburgh Steelers in the opening round of the playoffs, Denver lost to the New England Patriots in the second round. It was apparent that the Broncos were nothing more than a mediocre team that had to rely on Tebow's heroics late in games. 

How things have changed. 

Now with the Broncos, Manning leads one of the most potent passing attacks in the NFL. He does so with pretty much the same supporting cast. Denver ranks second in scoring offense and sixth in passing offense this season. It is 10-3 and in the midst of an eight-game winning streak. 

Outside of Manning, the Broncos didn't add anyone of substance on offense during the offseason. While Brandon Stokley, Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen were decent acquisitions, they're only making major impacts because of Manning. On that note, let's take a look at the difference between Denver's offensive stats from last season to 2012. 

Year PPG 1st Downs Passing Overall Record
2011 19.3 17.9 152.1 316.6 8-8
2012 28.8 22.9 284.0 390.1 10-3

Don't tell me that Manning doesn't deserve MVP consideration. He has turned the Broncos from a marginal team to a Super Bowl contender. 

 

Tom Brady, Quarterback, New England Patriots

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

There is a reason why Brady is considered one of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks. Not only has this future Hall of Fame quarterback been to a record five Super Bowls, he possesses a 77.9 regular-season winning percentage. For comparison's sake, Joe Montana won 71 percent of his regular-season starts. 

Brady and the Patriots had the best regular season in NFL history when they went undefeated back in 2007. They scored nearly 37 points per game, had a point differential of 19.7 and set several individual records. Brady threw 50 touchdowns and finished with a 117.2 quarterback rating. 

Meanwhile, Randy Moss broke Jerry Rice's single-season touchdown record with 23. Despite losing to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, the 2007 Patriots have to be considered one of the NFL's all-time best teams.

Following that record-breaking season, Brady tore his ACL against the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2008 season opener. New England finished 11-5 that season and failed to make the playoffs with Matt Cassel under center. 

If that doesn't show exactly how valuable Brady is to his franchise, I have no idea what will.

New England is rolling again after winning the AFC Championship last season. It has won seven consecutive games and ranks first in the NFL in scoring at a tad more than 36 points per game. It doesn't take an expert to know that the Patriots are one of two or three favorites to bring home another Lombardi Trophy. 

Raise your hand if you believe that New England would have been anywhere near as successful with any other quarterback than Brady himself. 

 

Why This Happens

Sometimes, franchises are able to build around a top pick or a player who caught lightning in a bottle. Other times, they are forced to utilize a specific star because they lack that type of talent elsewhere. Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers is a prime example of the latter.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

San Francisco is 28-7-1 during Gore's career when he attempts at least 20 rushes, 

From 2006 to 2010, San Francisco went 9-36 when Gore failed to rush the ball 20 times. It is now 15-4 since the start of last season when Gore doesn't have that many rushes. What is the difference here? 

The 49ers are now more balanced on offense. Their quarterbacks, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, have combined to throw for 40 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions since the start of the 2010 season.

While the 49ers are still a run-first team, this added dimension has made them that much more dangerous. This is one of the primary reasons that head coach Jim Harbaugh made the switch from Smith to Kaepernick mid-season. The 49ers are now legitimate Super Bowl contenders, despite not relying on Gore as much as they did in the past. 

Outside of the likes of Brady and Manning, it is important for franchises to build a strong roster from top to bottom. While having that stud quarterback is definitely an advantage, it doesn't mean that you are going to contend for a Super Bowl if there are several holes on the roster outside of that position. 

Let's go back to the Indianapolis Colts for a second. They now have a new face of the franchise in Andrew Luck, who has surprised a great deal of people during his rookie season. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft has Indianapolis on the verge of clinching a playoff spot with a 9-4 record. 

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

That being said, it is apparent that the Colts are nowhere near contending for a Super Bowl. They don't have the talent you need, from top to bottom, to contend with some of the best teams in the league. They are in the first stage of what promises to be a lengthy rebuilding process. While it is surprising that Indianapolis has made these amazing strides in 2012, it needs to start building talent around Luck to be a contender moving forward. 

Unless, of course, Luck mirrors the quarterback he succeeded, Manning. 

 

Defense

Ray Lewis might be one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the league, but he isn't asked to carry the weight of the team on his shoulders. Simply put, defenses need more than one player to be considered dominating or elite. The Baltimore Ravens have had a nice supporting cast around Lewis throughout his successful NFL run. 

The same goes for Brian Urlacher in Chicago and Patrick Willis in San Francisco. While having an All-Pro defender in the NBA can make an entire unit better, there are 11 players on the field at one time in the NFL. Offenses can easily work their game plan to negate the impact of a specific defensive player if he doesn't have someone else to pick up the slack. 

Lewis has had Ed Reed for more than a decade now, Urlacher has a fellow Pro Bowler in Lance Briggs, and San Francisco's defense didn't become elite until Willis was joined by All-Pro NaVorro Bowman last season. 

If franchises attempt to build their defense around one guy, and one guy only, they're going to be deeply disappointed. One example of this is Patrick Peterson with the Arizona Cardinals. While Daryl Washington has proven himself to be a solid linebacker, the rest of that defense seems to lack the talent to become elite.

Offenses can succeed if they are lackluster in one category, defenses can't. This is one of the reasons that Arizona's defense has struggled recently and ranks 30th against the run. 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Peterson and Washington are great, but can't make up for other shortcomings.

Prior to the Denver Broncos' selection of Von Miller in the top five of the 2011 NFL draft, Champ Bailey didn't make their defense that much better by his mere presence as a shutdown cornerback. The list goes on and on. 

Sorry, but the NFL is a league driven by scoring and offense. Franchises are built around quarterbacks and running backs, who are asked to shoulder a tremendous burden. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn't. 

 

Conclusion

I only used a few examples here, but you must get the point. Teams that rely too much on a specific player put themselves in an unenviable situation, at least most of the time. It takes a special player to step his game up in order for that franchise to be in contention for a Super Bowl. 

You don't see a wide receiver in this article because even Calvin Johnson needs someone to get the ball to him on a consistent basis and a defense to step their game up.

In fact, the Detroit Lions would represent the other side of the ledger. They have one Pro Bowl player in Johnson, a quarterback who is regressing and a defense that isn't playing up to its level. The end result is a 4-9 record following a 2011 season that saw Detroit win 10 games and make the postseason. 

While Robert Griffin III and Luck may end up being this generation's Manning and Brady, don't expect many other quarterbacks to have this type of success without having a solid supporting cast. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL

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