Vikings

Peterson in Rare Company for Rushing; Not So Much For Receiving

Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen

The Vikings head into 2016 with a three-time rushing champion in the backfield who cares a lot about his place in history. Thirty-one-year-old Adrian Peterson is gunning to someday break the league’s all-time rushing record, and if he delivers a season in line with his career average, he should be just behind Eric Dickerson in eighth place all-time by year’s end.

The ironic part of Peterson’s greatness is his subpar play in other areas. The two most glaring foibles of Peterson over the years have been fumbles – which have now played a big role in two playoff losses – and an inability to produce in the passing game, whether as a blocker or a receiver. That’s what we’re focusing on today.

As common as the shortcomings have been, Peterson’s repeated proclamations that he’s going to turn things around have been equally routine.

In the aftermath of last season’s playoff loss to Seattle, Peterson told reporters he wanted to become more versatile in the offense, and he received a vote of confidence from head coach Mike Zimmer. “If it’s being more versatile, being more involved in the passing game or it’s protection or running routes, any of those things,” said Zimmer, “I do believe he can do anything that he sets his mind to do.”

After the team’s voluntary workout this past Wednesday, Peterson spoke about the implementation of his offseason plan. “Just go out, whether it’s before or after the workout you get 10 routes in each,” he said. “Maybe it’s a flat, maybe it’s an option route. You just kind of go through it and just kind of pinpoint being patient depending on where the route and the concept that’s going to be called.”

It would be foolhardy to say Peterson doesn’t care about blocking or catching passes – because Peterson cares a lot about football and his place in its history. He’s on record as saying he wants to be the greatest of all time, and the best way for him to stake claim to that distinction would be to break Emmitt Smith’s all-time rushing record, which he’s been eying for several seasons. Peterson’s greatest enemy in his chase for the rushing record may be his inability to be an every-down running back – a fault that could eventually make him replaceable if his rushing skills ever deteriorate. Surely, Peterson is aware that a running back who is forced to brood on the sideline during third downs will unlikely play late into his 30s.

when people from future generations inevitably pore over old stats to see what kind of player Peterson was, they’ll find that he was among the weakest pass catchers in the NFL pantheon of running backs.

And yet, Peterson has been unable to evolve from a pure runner into a multi-faceted offensive player after nearly a decade in the league.

His place historically

Peterson is currently 17th on the all-time rushing list. He has reached the point where he’ll likely begin passing big names – some, Hall of Famers – on an every-other-game basis this season. There’s a good shot he surpasses Thurman Thomas, Franco Harris, Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, Jim Brown and Tony Dorsett before the year concludes. Provided Peterson has average seasons – by his standards — through 2017 (1,250 yards per year), he’ll be in the fourth place on the all-time list heading into the 2018 season.

If he’s not there already, Peterson will have cemented his Hall of Fame candidacy if he enters the top five in the next couple years.

As long as football is around, Peterson will be associated with the top 10 to 15 running backs in NFL history, all of whom are likely to be in the Hall of Fame once Peterson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James and (probably) Frank Gore get the call to Canton.

But when people from future generations inevitably pore over old stats to see what kind of player Peterson was, they’ll find that he was among the weakest pass catchers in the NFL pantheon of running backs.

While it would be impossible to go back in time and analyze the overall skillsets of each player we’re about to mention, the pure numbers manifest a fairly accurate portrayal. Since each of the NFL’s elite rushers had lengthy careers, they left us big sample sizes with which to work.

Below are the receiving stats of the current top 15 running backs in NFL history compared to Peterson’s. Before you scan the chart, there are a couple quick clarifications. For one, seasons where running backs were either inactive due to injury, rarely utilized due to age or suspended on child abuse charges were tossed out and averages were adjusted accordingly. You’d be surprised how many names on this list had throwaway seasons at the tail end of their careers, often with different teams (i.e., Eric Dickerson, Edgerrin James, Franco Harris).

Two, there was a greater emphasis placed on reception totals than yardage or touchdowns. Why? If yards after catch automatically made a player excellent as a receiver, Peterson would’ve mastered this skill long ago. And touchdowns are too arbitrary. For example, Curtis Martin and Thurman Thomas had roughly the same number of receptions in their careers, but Martin had 10 touchdowns against Thomas’s 23. The chart values reception totals because it’s a truer indication of how willing a team was to utilize the player in the passing game and how adept the player was at getting open. Peak reception total shows how effective the player was in the passing game at the prime of their career.

Player: Productive Years/Avg Rec Per Season/Avg Yds Per Season/Peak Rec

Adrian Peterson:          8 years, 29.5 rec, 240 yds, Peak of 43

———

Emmitt Smith:             15 years, 34.3 rec, 215 yds, Peak of 62

Walter Payton:             13 years, 37.8 rec, 349 yds, Peak of 53

Barry Sanders:            10 years, 35.2 rec, 292 yds, Peak of 48

Curtis Martin:              11 years, 44 rec, 303 yds, Peak of 70

LaDainian Tomlinson:   11 years, 56.7 rec, 433.8 yds, Peak of 100

Jerome Bettis:             13 years, 15.4 rec, 111 yds, Peak of 31

Eric Dickerson:            10 years, 27.5 rec, 208 yds, Peak of 51

Tony Dorsett:              12 years, 33.2 rec, 296 yds, Peak of 51

Jim Brown:                   9 years*, 29 rec, 278 yds, Peak of 47
(* Brown played 12- and 14-game seasons)

Marshall Faulk:            12 years, 63.9 rec, 573 yds, Peak of 87

Edgerrin James:          10 years, 43 rec, 335 yds, Peak of 63

Marcus Allen:              16 years, 36.7 rec, 338 yds, Peak of 68

Franco Harris:             12 years*, 25.5 rec, 191 yds, Peak of 37
(* Harris played nine years with 14-game seasons)

Thurman Thomas:       12 years, 39.3 rec, 372 yds, Peak of 62

Frank Gore:                11 years, 34.2 rec, 286 yds, Peak of 61

———

Trying to digest the chart may be tough without some guidance, so let’s first see where Peterson’s averages rank in the top 15. His 29.5 receptions per season ranks well above Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, who was never known for his spryness, Franco Harris, who played nine seasons with a 14-game schedule, and Jim Brown, who spent the first part of his career playing a 12-game schedule and the latter half playing 14. Peterson sits above three players on the list, and two of them have asterisks.

In average receiving yards per season, Peterson would be slotted 12th on the list, ahead of only Harris, Dickerson, Bettis and the man at the top, Emmitt Smith.

Finally, Peterson’s peak year in receptions, which occurred with Brett Favre in 2009, earned him 43 catches, fewer than everybody on the list but Bettis and Harris.

Faulk had four seasons where he gained over 2,100 yards from scrimmage – Peterson has just one.

For fun, here’s what the list looks like with players ranked by receptions per season and Peterson included.

Marshall Faulk:          12 years, 63.9 rec, 573 yds, Peak of 87

LaDainian Tomlinson: 11 years, 56.7 rec, 433.8 yds, Peak of 100

Curtis Martin:            11 years, 44 rec, 303 yds, Peak of 70

Edgerrin James:        10 years, 43 rec, 335 yds, Peak of 63

Thurman Thomas:     12 years, 39.3 rec, 372 yds, Peak of 62

Walter Payton:          13 years, 37.8 rec, 349 yds, Peak of 53

Marcus Allen:            16 years, 36.7 rec, 338 yds, Peak of 68

Barry Sanders:          10 years, 35.2 rec, 292 yds, Peak of 48

Emmitt Smith:          15 years, 34.3 rec, 215 yds, Peak of 62

Frank Gore:              11 years, 34.2 rec, 286 yds, Peak of 61

Tony Dorsett:            12 years, 33.2 rec, 296 yds, Peak of 51

Adrian Peterson:        8 years, 29.5 rec, 240 yds, Peak of 43

Jim Brown:               9 years*, 29 rec, 278 yds, Peak of 47
(* Brown played 12- and 14-game seasons)

Eric Dickerson:        10 years, 27.5 rec, 208 yds, Peak of 51

Franco Harris:         12 years*, 25.5 rec, 191 yds, Peak of 37
(* Harris played nine years with 14-game seasons)

Jerome Bettis:        13 years, 15.4 rec, 111 yds, Peak of 31

———

You can see Marshall Faulk atop the list, and folks, it isn’t even close: Faulk is the greatest receiving running back of all time. In the Rams’ Super Bowl season of 1999, Faulk had over 1,000 receiving yards by himself – not far off from the league’s top 10. Faulk had four seasons where he gained over 2,100 yards from scrimmage – Peterson has just one. And Faulk barely tailed off. Every other name on the list had a valley toward the end of their career where their reception totals dropped into the single digits, teens or low 20s. Faulk’s low was 44 in his final season.

Peterson certainly doesn’t have to be like Faulk to improve his receiving prowess. The Vikings aren’t asking for a lot from Peterson; they simply need him to become a threat on every down. The question is: At age 31, can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Maybe it’s clear why Peterson speaks so fervently about his desire to break Smith’s rushing record. He knows that, if his Hall of Fame fate were left up to peripheral stats, like receiving yards, he wouldn’t have much of an argument.

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