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How Much Will The Vikings' Offense Change Without Adrian Peterson?

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Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Narratives are a funny thing, particularly in the world of the media. In this particular case, I'm talking about a narrative as an explanation or interpretation of events that fits with a particular point of view. They're more common in the news or political media, but they're out there in the world of sports media as well.

One such narrative has to do with the Minnesota Vikings and running back Adrian Peterson, and it's one that deserves particular scrutiny in light of today's events. For much of the past few seasons, the thought process has been that Peterson makes things easier on the Vikings' passing game because opposing defenses are constantly "stacking the box" in an effort to limit his effectiveness. I've been guilty of leaning on this particular narrative myself over the course of the past few years.

With Peterson now, possibly, being done for the season (if not done as a member of the Vikings), the implication based on the narrative is that Peterson's absence is going to make things much tougher on new quarterback Sam Bradford and the rest of Minnesota's offense. The thinking is that because Peterson won't be lined up in the backfield anymore, defenses will be able to back off a bit and not consistently "stack the box" against the Minnesota offense.

As it turns out, that might not be 100% true.

For Exhibit A, I'd like to point to this bit of information from Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, who put forth this bit of information in response to Elliot Harrison of NFL.com when he made the suggestion that Peterson's absence would make things tougher for the Minnesota offense.

Yes, in a season where Peterson performed at a level that we have never seen another running back operate on and won the MVP award, he saw a "loaded box" on approximately one out of every seven carries. The season following the season that saw him win the MVP award, that increased to approximately once out of every five carries. So, the percentage is really not as high as we might think without looking deeper into the numbers.

We also have this from our good friend Arif, which will be marked as Exhibit B.

This is a very good point. As one of our regular commenters from here, Krauser, points out in this twitter chain, it would appear that a lot of the "eight in the box" looks that the Vikings get from defenders has to do with the formations the Vikings use and the number of blockers they put out there in these situations. As he puts it, if an offense comes out in a formation with four wide receivers and one running back, defenses aren't going to put eight defenders "in the box." Conversely, if a team comes out with three tight ends. . .something that the Vikings employ more than just about anybody. . .naturally the defense is going to move more players up in order to stop the perceived threat of the run. So, while defenses might be putting "eight in the box" to slow down Adrian Peterson, a lot of that appears to be related to the Vikings having seven or eight blockers in that area to clear the way. Defenses, in that case, are simply doing what you'd expect them to do.

Yes, the Vikings' run blocking has been lousy this year so far, but they've had lousy run blocking in the past, too. The difference is that, in the past, these were battles that Peterson could win based solely on his ability to take on defenders, or avoid them as the situation called for, and get yardage anyway. This season, that hasn't been happening. Has Father Time finally won the battle against Adrian Peterson? He might have. . .it's tough to know for sure.

It also highlights why Peterson's inability to make things happen when running out of the shotgun formation is a much bigger deal than a lot of people want to make it out to be. Given the immediate implications when a team lines up in the shotgun. . .that they're likely going to be throwing the ball. . .it has a tendency to spread defenses out more. If you have a running back that can run out of that setup. . .someone like, let's say, Jerick McKinnon. . .it gives your offense so many more options to look at. We've talked before about how predictable the Vikings' offense is, and a part of that is because of the limitations that Peterson has as a running back. If someone like McKinnon, or even Matt Asiata, is given an opportunity to run in a situation where the Vikings can disguise things a little bit, it can only be beneficial to them and the rest of the offense.

A lot of what we're going to hear over the next day or two is how the Vikings are going to be doomed offensively because Adrian Peterson won't be in the backfield behind Sam Bradford anymore. As I said in the opening, that's what the narrative has been for a long while. . .and, as I said, it was a narrative that I had gotten used to accepting as fact. But given Peterson's lack of production to this point and his limitations as a player, I'm really starting to think that the loss of #28 is really not going to be a killer one for this football team. I'm going to stop short of declaring that this offense could, potentially, be better without him, but I don't think it's outside of the realm of possibility.

I guess we're all going to start finding out for sure in about four days here. I know that Mike Zimmer's team is going to be ready to go out there and give the Carolina Panthers hell, regardless of who the Vikings are putting out there on offense.