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“9 yards, boy, that’s got to hurt.”

“9 yards, what? From breaking it?”

“That’s what I heard.”

“Well, ultimately, we got the ‘W’. And that was my main focus coming into the game. If it happens, it happens. But don’t focus on it.”

Adrian Peterson was torn; you could see it in his face. The post-game interview from Pam Oliver proved to be a bittersweet moment as Peterson just punched his ticket to the postseason, but missed the NFL rushing record by only nine yards.

Nonetheless, what Peterson accomplished during the 2012 season was absolutely remarkable. Not only did he nearly set the rushing record, he single handedly led the Vikings to the playoffs. He perfectly embodied the role of Hodor, carrying a completely useless person on his back for an entire season.

The story begins in 2011. In a lost season in which the Vikings were just 2-12 coming into the week 16 matchup against the Washington Redskins, Adrian Peterson tore both his ACL and MCL, putting the cherry on top of a horrendous year. From that moment forward, analysts around the league were unsure when and even if Peterson would return to form.

To the amazement of the entire football community, Peterson fully recovered and was available week one of the 2012 NFL season. After tallying just 499 yards through the first six games of the season, he exploded with nearly 1600 yards in the final 10 games, averaging 160 yards a game.

Not only that, but from week 7 to week 14, Peterson averaged 7.46 yards per carry on 176 carries.

One has to wonder what his final rushing total could have been had he not started “slow” the first six games.

Ultimately, Peterson’s unbelievable season was very atypical: The combination of being a workhorse due to lack of other offensive options, durability, and pure, generational talent.

With today’s pass heavy offenses and a trend toward running back committees; will we ever see a 2,000-yard rusher again?

When you look back at the league, the NFL has been on a pass-heavy trend since 1978.

That year marked the first significant rule change for defenders, which prohibited them from making significant contact with receivers past 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. This saw a huge uptick in passing plays by 1980.

Enter the West Coast offense, the no-huddle offense, and other high-powered passing games.

Another monumental rule change happened again in 1994, in which defensive backs were disallowed from jamming receivers more than 5 yards downfield. Passing rates climbed once again as more and more restrictions were being put on defenders.

Fast-forward to 2018 as touchdown records and passer-rating league wide was the highest it had ever been. Patrick Mahomes became the second player ever with 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a season, and Jameis Winston followed that up with a 5,000-yard season of his own in 2019 — albeit with fewer touchdowns and many more interceptions.

At this point it’s pretty obvious: The league is passing more and more with no signs of slowing down.

So, is that it? Has the 2,000-yard rusher gone extinct? Relics of the past that can only be remembered via grainy, outdated footage?

It is still possible, but the 2,000-yard rusher can only hope for one of three things:

1. New rule changes

2. 17-game season

3. The invisible hand

NEW RULE CHANGES

This, admittedly, is the most far-fetched option for running backs, but it is a possibility.

Rule changes allowed the NFL to become pass heavy: the aforementioned 5-yard contact and jamming rules, as well as increased restrictions on hitting the quarterback have crowned the passing game as King, and scores and stats have never been higher.

But there can always be too much of a good thing.

Watching a Christopher Nolan movie is (usually) great. Watching only Christopher Nolan movies for a month straight is horrendous and existential crisis inducing.

A shot of Don Julio is great. Five shots of Don Julio that you have to finish right away because your friend ordered them and forgot to tell you the Uber was waiting outside already is bad.

Watching high-scoring NFL games is great, but could watching games with 90%+ passing plays become stale?

Rule changes calling for looser restrictions on defender contact or other defensive advantages could pave the way for more running plays.

THE 17-GAME SEASON

The recently approved CBA includes the switch to a 17-game season, which will happen sometime between 2021 and 2023. An extra game would certainly help running backs on their way to a 2,000-yard season, but will it help enough?

For a 17 game season, players will need to average roughly 118 yards per game to reach 2,000 yards. That sounds simple enough, but when a person factors in increasing passing plays, the running back committee trends, and a need to be durable and injury-free the entire season, it’s not as easy as it looks.

In fact, let’s take a look at every rushing leader of the past 20 years, and see who would have rushed for 2,000 yards given their yards per game average.

YearPlayerYds./Gm.Total Yards in 17 game season
2019D. Henry102.71746
2018E. Elliott95.61625
2017K. Hunt82.91409
2016E. Elliott108.71848
2015A. Peterson92.81578
2014D. Murray115.31960
2013L. McCoy100.41707
2012A. Peterson131.12229
2011M. Jones-Drew100.41707
2010A. Foster101.01717
2009C. Johnson125.42132
2008A. Peterson110.01870
2007L. Tomlinson92.11566
2006L. Tomlinson113.41928
2005S. Alexander117.51998
2004C. Martin106.11804
2003J. Lewis129.12195
2002R. Williams115.81969
2001P. Holmes97.21652
2000E. James106.81816

Besides the running backs who achieved a 2,000-yard season — Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, and Jamal Lewis — no one was able to rush for 2,000-yards in even a 17 game season.

People may say, “Oh but Ricky Williams, Shaun Alexander, and DeMarco Murray were all less than 50 yards away” or “But Derrick Henry averaged almost 160 yards a game in an 8-game stretch last year”, and to that I say: If my uncle had tits he would be my aunt.

This isn’t a “who can get closest to 2,000” discussion, or a “who can get the highest yards per game” discussion, it’s a “who can get to 2,000 yards in a season” discussion, and all the players I just mentioned fell short even in a 17-game scenario.

A 17-game season would help a 2,000-yard campaign, but certainly wouldn’t guarantee it.

THE INVISIBLE HAND

The Invisible Hand is an economic term in which an “unobservable market force” helps the supply and demand of goods reach equilibrium.

In other words, the invisible hand brings things back to the middle; it makes sure there is never too much or too little.

So exactly why am I boring everyone more than an episode of “How It’s Made” with an economics lesson in the middle of this article? It is because this term can also be applied to the current state of football.

In the age of passing attacks, defenses across the country have become faster than ever before, and it is starting at the bottom.   

In this article by the Washington Post, they detail how top high school defenses are evolving into leaner, more agile units to combat the ever-increasing passing attack.

In one section of the article, they write, “To counteract the speedy, up-tempo offenses, many defenses have de-emphasized the need for hulking run-stoppers who clog up lanes and make plays with brute force.”

The trend of top high school defenders metamorphosing from “hulking run-stoppers” to agile, athletic defenders will soon permeate to the NCAA and the NFL, sparking a movement that will lead defenses across the board to become much more versatile and athletic.

And here is where the invisible hand comes into play.

Imagine an entire NFL defensive unit built to defend the spread offense passing attack. They are lighter, leaner, and built to cover the field: cornerbacks are extremely agile, and linebackers resemble safeties. Gone are the physical frames of the Brian Urlachers, the DeMarcus Wares, and the Terrell Suggs.

Now imagine 2019 Derrick Henry going against that defense.

As defenses become more and more mobile, there will be a tipping point. A point where offenses can now say, “I see you have eight smaller, athletic players on the field: maybe I will just pound the run.” And perhaps this will be the shift back to a run heavy game and a glint of opportunity for the 2,000-yard rusher.

At the end of the day, it’s not a question of, “Will there be another Adrian Peterson?” but “Will the next Adrian Peterson be allowed to perform to his potential?”

It’s very hard to imagine a 2,000-yard rusher in today’s game, but there will always be balance. Whether it be rule changes, the 17-game season, or the “invisible hand” coming into play to alter offensive strategies, there will come a day when the running back position has returned to its former glory.

But maybe not for a while.

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