While Sanders is rightly considered one of the most dominant runners of the football to ever play the game, his teams rarely tasted consistent or lasting success in the win-loss column. From 1989 to 1998, years in which Sanders averaged 1,527 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns per season, the Detroit Lions finished with 10 wins just three times and won only one of six playoff games.
The Vikings will attempt to reverse a similar course playing out in Minnesota, giving Peterson a chance at winning more on a team level in the later stages of his career. The hope is that by providing the right pieces around their elite running back, the Vikings will finally make his gargantuan rushing totals matter more in the team's final record.
Peterson, 29, has been the most productive running back of the last seven years. In fact, no player is really even close.
Since 2007, his first year in the NFL, Peterson has rushed for 10,115 yards and 86 touchdowns. The next closest in yards is Chris Johnson, at a measly 7,965 (or 2,150 fewer yards than Peterson). In terms of rushing touchdowns, Michael Turner's 61 come in 25 behind Peterson for second place.
Per carry or per game, the story is the same.
Peterson's 4.98 yards per attempt is fourth best among running backs since 2007 (minimum 300 carries), with only Jamaal Charles (5.58), C.J. Spiller (5.12) and Darren Sproles (5.06) averaging more. It's worth nothing, however, that the three ahead of him have a combined 2,062 career carries, while Peterson has rushed 2,033 times.
His dominance per attempt spans a much wider timeline.
No back since '07 has a higher per-game rushing average than Peterson, whose 98.2 yards per game sits almost eight yards higher than Alfred Morris (90.3) for second and nearly 12 yards more than Doug Martin (86.8) for third. Morris and Martin have played 54 career games; Peterson, 96. In fact, only four active running backs with 90 or more games averaged 75.0 or more yards per game over the last seven years (Peterson, Johnson, Steven Jackson, Frank Gore).
Yet, despite his rushing dominance, Peterson's Vikings still have as many losing seasons as 10-win seasons (three), and three playoff appearances have netted just one win.
The Vikings got to the doorstep of the Super Bowl (and even briefly had a foot in the door) with Brett Favre under center, but Minnesota is still just 54-57-1 overall since 2007. Take away Favre's brilliant 2009 season from the mix, and the Vikings fall to 42-53-1 in the other six years with Peterson mostly leading the charge.
The numbers are a clear indication—just as they were with Sanders—that running backs no longer run the professional game. A dominant player at the position can help win games, but in few instances does an elite running back carry a football team in the modern age.
Even transcendent talents like Peterson need help to achieve team success. And while individual numbers matter to most, Peterson has already accomplished almost everything a running back could ever imagine.
He holds the single-game rushing record at 296 yards. He rushed for over 2,000 yards in 2012, becoming only the seventh in NFL history to hit the milestone. Through seven seasons, he has six Pro Bowl nods and three first-team All-Pro selections. He was even named NFL MVP, which made Peterson only the fifth running back since Sanders in 1997 to win the award.
Peterson, who has never been shy about setting statistical goals for himself, told Tom Pelissero of USA Today that while stats are nice, winning a Super Bowl is still the main objective.
"But what trumps that – numbers-wise, that is – is when you're in the conference championship and winning a Super Bowl and getting that no matter what way," Peterson said. "If I get 2,000, 2,500 (yards) in the process, cool. And if I end up with 1,200 and a Super Bowl – psssh, I feel like I ran for 2,500. That's the ultimate goal."
The Vikings simply haven't made the most of this generation's most physically talented running back.
Peterson has 42 career 100-yard games, the most in Vikings history. Minnesota is 26-15-1 in those games, which seems to suggest that his productivity from game to game does have a significant impact on whether or not the Vikings win games. Further evidence can be had in Minnesota's record in games in which Peterson rushes for 60 or fewer yards. It's happened 23 times since 2007, and the Vikings are just 6-17 in those games.
However, Peterson's 2009 season shows that the Vikings are at their best when the running back is just one piece of the larger puzzle.
Peterson rushed for 1,383 yards in '09, but his 4.4-yard average still represents the worst of his career, and his 86.4 yards per game rank as his second fewest for a season. He had just three 100-yard games. Yet the Vikings still won 12 games (the most of the Peterson era) and the NFC North crown, gained a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs and then came within one horrendous decision by Favre from playing in the Super Bowl.
The Vikings were a legitimate powerhouse in 2009, with 10 Pro Bowlers and a top-10 offense and defense. Most importantly, Favre delivered one of his greatest seasons, throwing for 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions with a 107.6 passer rating.
The counter to this argument is the 2012 season, when Peterson all but carried the Vikings to the postseason. He rushed for 2,097 yards—the second most in NFL history—and Minnesota surprisingly won 10 games. But the Vikings were never much of a threat in the postseason, and it took four straight wins to close the season for Minnesota to even qualify as a wild card.
At 29 years old, Peterson likely doesn't have another season as superlative as 2012 left in him. To make the most of Peterson's final productive years, the Vikings need to provide the supporting pieces around him.
It all starts at quarterback.
The table below shows how poor the Vikings have been at the game's most important position since Peterson entered the NFL:
|Minnesota Vikings Quarterbacks: 2007-2013|
|Comp. %||TD/INT||Passer Rating||MIN W-L|
Take away one magic season from a revenge-fueled 40-year-old, and the Vikings have been poor at quarterback during all six remaining seasons with Peterson. Only with Favre have the Vikings produced a quarterback group with a completion percentage over 65.0 or a passer rating over 85.0. Generally, teams struggle to consistently win without quarterbacks who can complete the football and play with overall efficiency.
It's certainly possible the Vikings now have the most promising setup at quarterback since Favre.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner is overseeing a group that includes Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder and Teddy Bridgewater. Cassel is a 10-year veteran who played well at times in 2013, and Bridgewater has franchise-quarterback tools despite being drafted at No. 32 overall in May's draft. An experienced offensive mind like Turner's will be expected to get either an efficient, safe season from Cassel, or a promising, exciting first year out of Bridgewater.
Defense is another area in which the Vikings have to be better for Peterson.
The Vikings have finished 16th or higher in yards allowed four times since 2007. During three of those seasons (2008, 2009, 2012), Minnesota went to the postseason. When the Vikings haven't made the playoffs, the defense's rankings have been as follows: 20th in 2007, 18th in 2010, 21st in 2011 and 31st in 2013.
Like at quarterback, Minnesota will go into 2014 feeling like the arrow is pointing up on defense.
Head coach Mike Zimmer is one of the most respected defensive minds in football. He demands the very best and usually receives it. The sum of his defenses in Cincinnati was almost always better than the collective parts, a testament to his ability to both scheme with X's and O's and motivate players.
Also, the defensive talent pool in Minnesota has to be considered elevated over its 2013 counterpart. Jared Allen and Kevin Williams are gone, but the Vikings should be better both along the defensive line and in the secondary, two major weaknesses from a year ago. A front four of Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph and Brian Robison is a strong one, and Captain Munnerlyn will help stabilize a cornerback group that didn't play well in 2013.
The Vikings hope the end result helps keep Peterson's contributions meaningful.
All the great running backs who have won big in the modern game have had the help. Emmitt Smith won three Super Bowls with Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin. Walter Payton needed one of the greatest defenses in NFL history to win a title. Jerome Bettis and Marshall Faulk finally won once they played next to great quarterbacks.
Sanders will be forever remembered for his individual greatness, but his career will also always lack team achievement.
The next stage of Peterson's career will determine an important part of his legacy. Winning big is unlikely to happen in 2014, but the Vikings are inching closer to making his unmatched statistics matter again in wins and losses.
Statistics courtesy of pro-football-reference unless otherwise noted.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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