As one of the premier halfbacks of our generation, Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson continues to dazzle the football world with his superhuman skill set as the 2010 season gets underway. The eye-popping rushing statistics he has compiled in three-plus years in the NFL, coupled with the fear he instills in defensive coordinators, are two reasons he has become one of the most respected players in the league.
One doesn’t need to be a Vikes fan to appreciate the elite athletic ability that AP brings to the sport, but Peterson’s success could be short-lived. At only 25 years old, the former Oklahoma Sooner is right in the prime of his career.
However, he has several factors working against him that, down the road, could sap his strength and quickness at an alarming rate. If his workload and surrounding personnel don't improve, conversations about Peterson after his retirement may focus on a career cut short, and prompt comparisons to a Hall of Fame running back from a generation ago.
From 1978 to 1985, Earl Campbell was a bruising tailback for the Houston Oilers who scored dozens of touchdowns with authority and doled out massive amounts of punishment on linebackers. In his seven years in the NFL, Campbell posted only five Pro Bowl-caliber seasons because of merciless usage by Bum Phillips, then head coach of the Oilers.
In 1981, Campbell’s fourth year as the Oilers’ “bell cow” back, his yards-per-carry average plummeted from 5.2 to 3.8. The following season, which was shortened to only nine games because of a strike, was probably the saving grace that prolonged his career.
Campbell was only able to muster a paltry 3.4 YPC along with two touchdowns in those nine contests. The shortened season nevertheless proved valuable, as the halfback nicknamed “The Tyler Rose” would have one more productive campaign as a Pro Bowler in 1983.
But the following year, Campbell’s career was derailed by a serious knee injury, which resulted in his getting traded to the New Orleans Saints to finish his career with a fraction of the running ability he had as an Oiler.
There are many parallels between the first three years of Earl Campbell and Adrian Peterson's careers.
Heavy usage early in career
Peterson has been a workhorse tailback ever since his first year at Oklahoma, when he tallied 339 carries in a 13-game season. Subsequent injuries to his ankle and collarbone prevented him from getting the same number of touches in the 2005 and 2006 seasons, but he was completely healthy by the time he was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2007.
The Vikings had every intention of preserving their first-round pick’s health for many years, and paired him with veteran running back Chester Taylor. Although Taylor was initially named the starter in 2007, Peterson's talent was so undeniable that he soon catapulted to the top of the depth chart.
Peterson’s 238 carries and 19 receptions don’t constitute an especially daunting workload for a rookie halfback. But in the 2008-09 seasons, Minnesota head coach Brad Childress called AP’s number a whopping 742 times, not including three postseason games. Considering he is in his prime, Viking fans likely wouldn’t mind a downtick in Peterson's touches if occasional breathers enabled him to play at a premier level for, say, an extra five years. Early indications in 2010 suggest less usage isn't in Childress' plans.
Without Taylor's complementary presence, Peterson is being leaned on by the Vikings more than ever. Through two games in 2010, AP's workload has him on pace for 376 carries and 64 catches, a Jamal Anderson-esque total of 440 touches.
The artificial turf in the Metrodome isn’t as conducive to a running back’s long-term health as natural grass. Peterson, like Campbell, has to play at least eight home games on a surface that is less forgiving on the joints and statistically more likely to produce injury.
Of course, artificial turf has come a long way since the days of the carpet-like Astroturf that Campbell played on in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Field Turf more closely resembles natural grass than its predecessor, but still isn’t as safe to play on as the real thing.
Steady decline in YPC
When Peterson made his NFL debut in 2007, the burst from his fresh legs—well-rested thanks to limited carries in his final college season—was noticeable both in terms of the “eyeball test,” and statistically.
Players who average 5.6 yards per carry on more than 230 carries come once in a generation: Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk are a few Hall of Fame backs who have approached that type of efficiency.
AP’s rushing average dropped to a merely elite 4.8 YPC in 2008, then dropped again to an above-average 4.4 in 2009. His apologists maintain that his offensive line diminished in terms of its dominance after Peterson’s rookie year, but this downgrade in talent is also part of the problem.
O-line weaker than previous years
When six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk left Minnesota after the 2008 season for the Baltimore Ravens via free agency, the Viking run blocking was downgraded from a top-five ranking to just mediocre. Viking rushers averaged 4.1 yards per carry in 2009, which ranked 19th in NFL team rankings.
Not every elite halfback needs a Hall of Fame offensive line to be great (e.g. Barry Sanders), but greatness can’t be sustained without consistently effective run blocking. Peterson’s precipitous drop in efficiency reflects the loss of Birk, as the center is an integral part of run-blocking schemes.
If the Viking O-line maintains its average level of play, the wear and tear on Peterson’s legs could begin to manifest in the next year or two, especially since he lost former teammate Chester Taylor to free agency during the 2010 offseason.
Taylor was an outstanding complementary back with soft hands whose pass protection skills surpass AP’s. Now that Peterson will also serve as the third-down back in Taylor’s absence, he won’t have the same opportunities to rest between carries.
Minnesota selected Heisman Trophy finalist RB Toby Gerhart in the 2010 draft, but he’s still months away from serving as a regular contributor to the Vikings offense. While the rookie from Stanford acclimates to the speed of the NFL, Peterson will become a larger part of the Viking passing attack, which should spell trouble for defensive backfields given “All Day’s” running style.
Aggressive running style
As football is undoubtedly a grueling sport, many players look for ways to shy away from unnecessary contact—but not Peterson. The 2004 Heisman Trophy winner often refuses to run out of bounds, and usually takes at least two to three defenders to the turf with him on each tackle. Furthermore, Peterson’s upright running style makes his 6’1” frame a larger, albeit easier, target to tackle than shorter backs with lower centers of gravity.
Peterson has been a phenomenal presence in the NFL for many reasons, and it would be a shame if his star burned brightly for too short a time. Steps can be taken so that Peterson is not just a short-lived phenomenon in the vein of Earl Campbell.
If the Vikings want to preserve the best running back in the 50-year history of their franchise, they’ll limit AP’s reps moving forward, upgrade their offensive line to its formerly elite level, and rest Peterson on third downs. Otherwise, his decline will be expedited from overuse and defensive abuse.
If Peterson’s situation doesn’t improve soon, five years from now we’ll be discussing how the three-time-Pro Bowler could have been one of the greatest, had he only stayed healthy a little longer.
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