Before even kicking off the 16th game of the 2015 season, Adrian Peterson had locked up his 3rd rushing title in his career. His closest competitor, Doug Martin, came up 16 yards short before the first snap, and ultimately 83 yards separated Adrian from the next best. At the end of the regular season, Adrian Peterson’s 1,485 yards was the best in the league. Looking at social media, I think people misconstrue that to mean something it doesn’t. Adrian Peterson may have gotten the most yards, but that’s all that means. It doesn’t mean he was the best, and it certainly doesn’t mean Peterson was the only reliable facet of our team. However, a narrative is beginning to evolve that Adrian Peterson carried his team to the playoffs, just like he did in 2012. This especially comes into play when trying to evaluate Teddy Bridgewater. On April 8, Ross Tucker tweeted about Bridgewater. The replies were littered with references to the Vikings’ success being attributed to Peterson, rather than our quarterback.
Also, just for fun:
There seems to be a general notion that the team carried Bridgewater, and the nucleus of that notion is that Adrian Peterson was the best running back in the NFL. After all, he got the most yards, right? Maybe that’s true; I won’t get into a stat-validity argument today. But that narrative also implies that having the best (or at least most productive) running back in the NFL means you let him carry you to the playoffs, which isn’t true.
To have a running back carry you to the playoffs, he needs to have a disproportionately good performance. Anything over 1,000 yards is a good offensive contribution, but a good offensive contribution doesn’t carry an offense. It needs to be something special. It’s no secret that Adrian Peterson is a special running back, but 2015 was not a special year. It was just good. I want to emphasize that I am completely throwing out all past seasons from Peterson, and comparing only the 2015 iteration. Examine his career, and you’ll see a Hall of Famer. Examine 2015, and you’ll see a good running back who can carry his weight and his weight only.
One way to put a rushing performance into context is to compare it to other rushing performances. This year’s rushing leader had 1,485 yards. Since our Quarterback was born (1992), there has only been one instance of a lower total yardage from the league leader: LaDanian Tomlinson in 2007. And the rest aren’t even close. In that same period, 14 of 22 rushing titles have been awarded to people with more than 186 yards on Peterson, or two games at his average of 92.8 Y/G. 2015 was a down year for running backs with several high-profile injuries skewing the competition. Le’Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch all missed significant time.
On top of the lack of competition, Adrian Peterson had the most attempts in the league, beating runner up Doug Martin by 39 (two games worth). For this, and other reasons, total yards probably aren’t the best indicator of overall contribution. We could go to the truly in-depth metrics like DVOA (17th) and PFF grade (T-27th), but those stats tend to be contentious. Take them for what they’re worth. For now, we’ll stick with Y/A, or yards per attempt. Adrian Peterson averaged 4.5 Y/A, which ties him for 15th in the league with DeAngelo Williams. When adjusting only for attempts, he ranks below Mark Ingram, CJ Anderson and Cam Newton. In fact, that’s his 2nd lowest season Y/A in his career. Comparing this to other rushing leaders in the same time period, only two titles have been given to running backs with lower Y/A: 1999 Edgerrin James and 2000 Edgerrin James. Against Jerrick McKinnon’s 5.1 Y/A, Peterson doesn’t even lead the team. 4.5 Y/A is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s a far cry from “carrying the offense” like he used to.
If you’re like me, you don’t believe that numbers ever tell the whole story. I think a subjective argument can be made about Peterson’s performance that shows how much the offense leaned on Peterson. It’s well-documented that Peterson is a bad pass blocker. PFF gave him a 40.1 pass blocking grade, which was good for 127th. Also, unlike Matt Forte or David Johnson, Peterson’s utility in the pass game is underwhelming to say the least. Peterson was involved in 400 rush snaps, or 78.1%. He was only involved in 312 of our passing snaps, or 53.3%. The reason for this decision is easy to discern- he’s an unreliable pass blocker and his 13 receiving yards per game weren’t exactly compelling us to change the game plan. Many will argue, however, that Peterson’s downhill rushing prowess allowed us to chew inordinate amounts of game clock. However, upon any inspection, the Vikings averaged an even 30 minutes of possession per game, good for 17th in the league. That’s all before mentioning Peterson’s fumbling issue, coughing up 7 balls on the year.
Adrian Peterson is a well-known one trick pony. For his whole career, that hasn’t been a problem. And honestly, it still isn’t. As much as I’ve picked apart the efficiency, 1,485 yards is a significant contribution and a good year, especially for a narrowly focused RB. But his inability to do anything outside of downhill rushing effectively makes it impossible for him to be the only factor in the offense. This makes it easier for defenses to key on play-calls, and harder for us to smoothly That’s right, I said it: Adrian Peterson is bad at some things. That’s okay to admit.
The point of this article isn’t to bash Peterson or make some argument about how he’s holding Teddy back. The point is to dispel the narrative that Peterson carried the offense in any way, shape or form. He’s one of the best downhill rushers in memory, but that’s it. His performance was a good one, not a great one. It wasn’t something special. His rushing title does not hold the same weight a rushing title usually holds. He ranks among the worst of the best in efficiency metrics across history, and ranks among the mediocre in the 2015 field. The Vikings cannot rely on him like they did in 2012 or 2008 (the singular Ponder and Jackson playoff years). They will not continue to rely on Peterson. If someone tells you that the Vikings will not make the playoffs this year because Adrian Peterson can’t reliably repeat a rushing title, you can tell them just how wrong they are.
Thanks for reading!