I was speaking to a fellow Viking fan recently and mentioned Adrian "AD" Peterson's fumbling problem. His response was immediate and visceral: "What problem? Walter Payton fumbled a lot, too."
It is true that Sweetness fumbled a lot. But it's also true that the Bears lost more games when he fumbled.
I can't find per-game fumble stats for Payton's era, but according to pro-football-reference.com, he fumbled 86 times in his career, which equates to 2.0 percent of his touches (rushing attempts + receptions).
Sweetness kept his fumble rate below 2.0 percent in eight of 13 seasons. In those eight seasons, the Bears' W-L record was 74-47.
In other the five seasons, the Bears were 37-36. Clearly, his fumbling mattered.
Per-game fumble stats are available for AD. He's played 49 games in his career (including three playoff games).
In AD's three seasons, the Vikes have been 20-13 when AD did not fumble. When he did, their record was 9-7. Not quite as big a drop off as when Sweetness put the rock on the ground a lot, but still signficant.
Maybe most significant is what happened in the last game of the '09 season, the NFCC loss to the Saints. AD officially is charged with "only" two fumbles in that game, both of which were recovered by Minnesota.
But the one that really mattered was actually charged to QB Brett Favre. The score was tied with a minute left in first half, Vikings ball, second down at the Saints four-yard line. Seemingly an excellent opportunity to go into the locker room up by a TD.
But opportunities can be fumbled away. Which is exactly what happened when Favre attempted a routine handoff to AD on that second down.
Looking at the replay, it's clear the botched exchange was AD's fault. The QB can't give you the ball if the pocket you present is smaller than the ball. Apparently the statisticians don't have any wiggle room in those situations, and automatically place the statistical blame on the QB.
Either way, the Vikes ended up three points short on the scoreboard.
Am I saying AD lost the game? No, the meltdown in the final 19 seconds of the fourth quarter (12 men on the field, then the INT) was much more cataclysmic than that red zone fumble. It was truly a team loss...even the coach most responsible for making sure players on offense all know exactly when they're supposed to be on the field (and off of it) is culpable and should share some of the blame.
But would the team have even been in a position to screw up monumentally like that with 19 seconds left, had AD remembered in the first half that being the ball carrier means you actually have to carry the ball ?
We'll never know. But it's clear, not fumbling at that point would have been much, much better than fumbling. Clearly going into the locker room after scoring in the final minute of the half was a gigantic opportunity squandered.
Clearly the fumbling is a problem, a big problem, any time you leave points on the field like that. In a game like that.
Bottom line, even if Sweetness and AD both have been historic, special athletes, that doesn't mean they're above all criticism. Football is still a team sport, and for this fan, winning championships is still more important than winning rushing titles or getting into the Hall of Fame.
I'd hope AD would be the first to admit that he has a fumbling problem (at least behind closed doors). I'd think Sweetness would, too, if he were still with us.
Denying the existence of a problem won't make it go away. Hopefully AD, his position coach Eric Bieniemy, and head coach Brad Childress are all on the same page this offseason and work together to address said problem.