About this time last year, most in the national media were skeptical that Adrian Peterson would be able to return to form after his ACL surgery. Most backs can't make a full recovery from that type of knee surgery they said. Some wondered if he would be able to come back at all. Running backs put a lot more strain on their knees and take much more of a beating than other skill positions they said. And then he not only came back, he won MVP honors and nearly broke the single-season rushing record. So much for conventional wisdom.
This year, most in the national media are talking about "regression to the mean" when they discuss Adrian Peterson's prospects this year. Most running backs follow 2,000 yard rushing seasons with much less production they say. They point to a lot of historical examples. Running backs can't sustain that level of production they say. In particular, they point to three things that typically happen:
1. Injury. 2. Defenses adjust. 3. Team / scheme changes.
Let's address each of these in turn.
First, injuries happen. There is always a risk of injury. Is there any reason to think Adrian Peterson is more susceptible in injury? Not really. The things that a player can control to avoid injury- hard work, conditioning, taking care of your body, playing hard- these are thing Adrian Peterson excels at. Some players get to a level and sometimes take their foot off the gas. They go a little easier with their training. Maybe don't play as hard every play. And that leads to injury. That is not Adrian Peterson.
Adrian Peterson averaged around 23 rushes a game last year. Fewer earlier in the year when he was recovering, more later in the year when he was delivering. The Vikings coaching staff is well aware of the need to preserve AD's health by not over-using him. My guess is that he maintains something like 20-23 rushes per game again this year, which is a sustainable rate for the 28 year old RB. The Vikings were a 50-50 run/pass team last year. I could see roughly the same this year, but perhaps moving closer to 55% pass, 45% run. We'll see.
Secondly, defenses will adjust to a premier running back, and limit his production. In the Vikings case, defenses have already adjusted. For the past 2 years, opposing defenses have stacked the box with 8-9 guys. And there was no reason not to. The Vikings passing attack was near the bottom of the league. What more adjustments can they make? What adjustments will they make if the Vikings passing game actually improves?
Third, team changes can effect RB production after a big year. Sometimes key players are lost. Linemen. Another key threat on offense. Or schemes / coaches change. They decide to move away from the run. Looking at the Vikings this year, the entire offensive line and full-back returns, still largely young and improving. And, if anything, the Vikings have more weapons on offense this year, not less. And, while coach Frazier has said he wants more balance between rushing and passing (hard not to when the run game is near the top of the league and the pass game is near the bottom), the focus is being more productive in each passing play, not materially increasing the number of passing plays or moving away from the run. Frazier and Musgrave continue to reiterate that the Vikings offense runs through Adrian Peterson- and will again this year. Being able to run well is a philosophy with Frazier that isn't going to be abandoned anytime soon.
And that leads to the secrets of Adrian Peterson's success - and why it is repeatable.
Adrian Peterson is everything you want in a running back. Powerful, quick, fast, great vision, agile- can blow you over, blow by you, or make you miss. Still is. That hasn't changed. But football is a team game. Especially when it comes to running the ball.
The Vikings commitment to a power run game extends beyond drafting Adrian Peterson and giving him the ball. The Vikings have invested in one of the better offense lines in the league. Especially run blocking. Not every team does that (see Packers, Green Bay, Bears, Chicago, and Lions, Detroit).
They also resigned one of the best run-blocking fullbacks in the league in Jerome Felton to make him among the highest paid in his position. Adrian Peterson was much more successful last year running with Felton as lead blocker than without him. Few teams make that commitment to a fullback, a vanishing position in the NFL.
The Vikings also coach their receivers to block well. They take the time in practice. Part of the role of receiver is to be able to block well- not the typical half-ass attempts among receivers on other teams in the league. The Vikings know a good block on a DB down field can add 5, 10, or 50 yards to a rushing attempt- whether its Adrian Peterson or Zach Line. And so they take the time to make that a part of their game.
Lastly, it's not exactly news that the NFL is a passing league. Defenses have been adjusting to that reality for many years now. Players are drafted and acquired for their effectiveness against the pass, not the run. That is the more important factor now. Whether safety, cornerback, linebacker or defensive end, the focus is pass defense. And schemes have changed too. LBs and even DEs have more pass responsibilities than before. And nickel and dime defenses are used much more frequently. And so coaches are more interested in LBs and DBs that can cover, and are more willing to overlook short-comings against the run. Similarly DEs are valued for their pass-rush ability, not their run-stopping ability. And so more and more defenses have become increasingly vulnerable to a strong run game.
Enter the Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson. Best RB in the league. One of the best offensive lines in the league. Best blocking full-back in the league. Among the best blocking receivers in the league. Opposing defenses less able to defend the run well - even with 8 or 9 in the box. And now a better receiving corps.
Regression to the mean? Guess again buddy.