Do the Vikings Have the Worst Running Game in NFL History?

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 16, 2016

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 25:  Luke Kuechly #59 of the Carolina Panthers tackles Jerick McKinnon #21 of the Minnesota Vikings in the 3rd quarter during the game at Bank of America Stadium on September 25, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

How much do the Minnesota Vikings miss injured superstar running back Adrian Peterson?

In the 50-year-old Super Bowl era, no NFL team has averaged fewer than 2.79 yards per rushing attempt over the course of a full season.

With their 2016 campaign 56 percent complete, the Vikings are averaging 2.67 yards per carry.

Lowest team yards-per-carry averages, Super Bowl era
TeamYPA
2016 Vikings2.67
1994 Patriots2.79
1992 Colts2.91
1966 Steelers2.91
1986 Patriots2.93
1967 Broncos3.01
Pro Football Reference

With Peterson out indefinitely due to a knee injury, replacements Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata and Ronnie Hillman have failed to get the job done behind a depleted offensive line. Not only does that group rank dead last in football by more than half a yard in terms of YPA, but they're averaging a league-low 69.8 rushing yards per game.

Considering how often the 5-4 Vikings have led this season, that's remarkable.

Over the course of a 16-game season, only the 2000 San Diego Chargers, the 2000 Cleveland Browns and the 1992 Indianapolis Colts have averaged fewer rushing yards per game. But those teams were a combined 13-35, so they trailed a lot more and thus ditched the run.

Nine games don't make a season, and a few teams have been nearly as unproductive as the Vikings at the nine-game mark. For example:

  • The 1971 Philadelphia Eagles averaged just 2.67 yards per carry during the first nine games of their season, and that Philly team actually averaged fewer rush yards per game (67.6) and had fewer rushing touchdowns (three to five).
  • The 1971 Houston Oilers were one of just six teams to average fewer than 70 rush yards per game (68.4) and 2.9 yards per carry (2.79) during the first nine weeks of the season. They won just one of those nine. 
  • The 1973 Washington Redskins are the only other team to post a winning record (6-3) at the nine-game mark despite averaging fewer than 88 yards per game (87.7) and 3.0 yards per carry (2.71).
  • That '92 Colts team averaged just 2.76 yards per carry and 63.2 rush yards per game at the nine-game mark. 
  • The 2006 Arizona Cardinals averaged just 2.77 yards per carry and 77.1 rush yards per game at the nine-game mark. They won just one of those nine. 

However:

  • The '71 Eagles got some strong performances late in the year from backs Ronnie Bull and Lee Bouggess and wound up averaging 3.1 yards per carry and 89.1 rush yards per game. 
  • The '71 Oilers had their two best rushing performances in the final five weeks of the season, going over 130 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers. With backs Woody Campbell and Robert Holmes, they wound up averaging 3.1 yards per carry and 79.0 rush yards per game. 
  • The '73 Redskins were still averaging about 18 more rushing yards per game than the 2016 Vikes, and the 'Skins averaged 3.9 yards per carry and 130.0 rush yards per game during the final five games that year. They finished the season averaging 3.1 yards per carry and over 100.0 rush yards per game.
  • The '92 Colts weren't much better over the final seven games, but they did boost their yards-per-game average to 68.9 and their yards-per-carry average to 2.91. Backs Anthony Johnson and Rodney Culver both averaged more than 3.2 yards per attempt during those final seven weeks.
  • The '06 Cards had their four best rushing outputs of the season in the final seven weeks. They were saved on the ground by Edgerrin James, who struggled for the first two months of the year but averaged a solid 4.2 yards per carry during the final seven weeks. Arizona finished the year with a 3.2 yards-per-attempt average and an 83.6 yards-per-game average.

Over the next seven weeks, McKinnon, Asiata and/or Hillman could very well do what Bull and Bouggess did late for the '71 Eagles, or what Larry Brown and Charlie Harraway did late for the '73 Redskins. Or one of them could pull an Edgerrin James.

Plus, there remains a chance Peterson returns from injured reserve. But that might not be enough to save this running game, especially since it appears he's still far from ready.

Even if Peterson does return, will it be too late? How effective can he be? How effective can any Minnesota back be? This is an offense that has now lost three offensive linemen—Matt Kalil, Andre Smith and Jake Long—to season-ending injuries, and the line wasn't good to begin with. Football Outsiders ranks that unit next to last when it comes to run blocking and in the bottom two in terms of power running, stuff percentage, second-level yards and open-field yards.

And per Pro Football Focus, only two of 26 qualified quarterbacks throw deep less often than Minnesota's Sam Bradford, who ranks near the bottom of the league with only 3.4 air yards per attempt, per Sporting Charts. That makes life even easier on opposing defenses that are rarely stretched out.

It all results in looks like these:

NFL Game Pass

NFL Game Pass

NFL Game Pass

NFL Game Pass

There's just no support for McKinnon and Asiata, both of whom have been terrible anyway.

Asiata is plodding and impatient. McKinnon is an undisciplined runner who lacks vision and creativity. Neither appears to be suited for even a semi-regular role in an NFL backfield.

PFF has something called an "elusive rating," which measures "a runner's success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers." Among 44 backs who have played a minimum of 25 percent of their team's snaps, only four have elusive ratings below 17.0: Frank Gore, Tim Hightower, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata.

Additionally, McKinnon and Asiata both rank among the bottom six in terms of "breakaway percentage," which "shows which runners earn the highest (and lowest) percentage of their yardage on big plays," and they have two of the five worst qualified running back grades in football.

It's a perfect storm, really. With the Vikings mired in a four-game losing streak, it might only get worse for an offense that has been working from behind more frequently in recent weeks.

The trajectory isn't encouraging. The Vikings averaged 74.3 rushing yards per game during their first six games, but that number has dropped to 60.7 in their last three games, all of which were losses.

It's almost impossible to win in this league without a semblance of balance. Right now, the Vikings offense is one of the least balanced units in modern NFL history, with little indicating that'll change between now and the end of the 2016 season.

       

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.