Several months ago, I wrote an article, “The Workhorse Running Back: A Dying Trend in the NFL.”
This piece highlighted the importance of utilizing a two or even three-back system to extend a running back's career, as the Panthers did with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams last season, or the Ravens with Willis McGahee, Ray Rice, and LeRon McClain.
Memo to the Vikings: Take note of this.
Adrian Peterson is good.
He's very good.
In fact, he is on pace to be one of the greatest running backs in the history of the National Football League.
His first two years were Hall of Fame worthy. He started in the Pro Bowl as a rookie, earned All-Pro honors in both seasons, and finished in the top two in the league in rushing yards both seasons.
He's already drawn comparisons to the great ones—Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and so on. It's too early to project a whole career for AP, but he looks to have a bright future ahead based on the two seasons we as football fans have seen from him.
Only three running backs have every rushed for more yards in their first two seasons than Peterson. Only 12 backs have ever rushed for more touchdowns. And only 11 backs have carried the ball as many times as Peterson.
That's a red flag right there.
No. 1 way to ruin a running back's career: overuse him.
Look at Terrell Davis. Earl Campbell. Larry Johnson.
These guys were the best of the best, but couldn't take the pounding from being the feature back—or the only back—for their team. All had prematurely short careers.
After averaging 374 touches per year in his first four seasons, Terrell Davis got injured and never again was the full-time starter.
Was it worth it to Denver fans?
They got two Super Bowl titles and a Super Bowl MVP performance from Davis. And he was arguably the best running back in the game for about three years.
But it would have been nice for Davis to play more than four full seasons in the NFL.
Campbell averaged 351 carries per season in each of his first four years in the pros before injuries limited him to just 207 carries per year in his final four seasons.
And Larry Johnson averaged 386 carries per season after taking over the starting duties for the Chiefs, including an NFL-record 416 carries in 2006. In the two years since, he has averaged fewer than 200 carries per season, after missing 12 games due to injury.
In fact, there have been 26 instances in football history in which a running back has topped 370 carries in a single season.
Of those 26 times, the running back has suffered an injury the following season nine times. 35 percent of the time.
That's a pretty big risk to the Vikings.
Of the five times a running back has topped 400 carries in a season, two of the five runners have gotten hurt the following season. Those two—Larry Johnson and Jamal Anderson—combined for just 177 carries in their following year.
Teams should be wary of giving their star running backs that many carries, especially a team like Minnesota that possesses a talented backup runner—Chester Taylor—capable of filling in as the full-time back.
Peterson is a special back—the kind you want to protect. Running backs don't have long careers, but the Vikings want to be able to still rely on him in five or six years.
370 carries doesn't guarantee an injury. In fact, most of the time the running back DOESN'T get hurt the next year.
Eric Dickerson—a physical freak of nature—is the only back in history with four seasons to his resume of 370-plus carries. And he never got hurt in any of the succeeding years.
But why take the chance?
Even if the back manages to stay healthy, there is a pretty good chance he will see a significant decrease in his yards per carry.
Ricky Williams was used 383 times by the Dolphins in 2002, gaining a league-best 1,853 rushing yards on 4.6 yards per carry.
The following year, he took the pounding from 392 carries, and didn't miss a game.
But he paid the price. His yards dropped to 1,372 and his yards per carry average dropped over a full yard, down to 3.5 per rush.
Same with Eddie George.
George carried the rock 403 times for the Titans in 2000, helping the team to the playoffs. He averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, but totaled 1,509 rushing yards and 16 total touchdowns.
The next season, George again played all 16 games and carried the ball 315 times. He failed to even top 1,000 yards however, averaging just a paltry 2.96 yards per carry.
In his final three seasons, George never again topped 3.4 yards per carry.
I have no ties to the Vikings. All they are to me is competition for the NFC title, but I would like to see a fair fight.
Ideally, I think Peterson should get 320 carries and 40 receptions, with Taylor handling around 125 carries and 30 receptions.
It's tempting to want to overwork a star. Especially when it gets your team that elusive Super Bowl trophy.
And maybe Peterson will turn out to be that once-in-a-lifetime back like Dickerson or Barry Sanders, who just doesn't get hurt.
But I wouldn't take my chances.