Click here for Sam Ekstrom’s analysis of Adrian Peterson’s return to Minnesota.
The biggest headline going into the Minnesota Vikings season opener on Monday Night Football isn’t the dynamic matchup of a potential top-five defense against a hall of fame quarterback, but the reunion of the Vikings and their former iconic running back, Adrian Peterson.
For all the hype that meetings like this tend to create, there’s not much evidence that within the game itself that Adrian Peterson will have an enormous impact on who wins.
Peterson may have declined as a running back — and there’s pretty decent evidence that he has — but the structure of the Saints offense may be what neuters him the most.
For a running back who has had progressively fewer yards per carry in the last several seasons for Minnesota, he’d been marginalized both for his effectiveness and his absence.
It’s been a while since Adrian Peterson has had a huge positive impact on the game, and even though one can attribute his recent low carry efficiency to the abysmal state of the offensive line (Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon also had poor averages), Peterson had fewer yards before contact and fewer yards after contact than either of the two other running backs, according to Pro Football Focus. Even when accounting for the offensive line, he had a worse performance than Matt Asiata.
Peterson’s six attempts for 15 yards in the preseason (2.5 yards per carry) does little to counter the building case for his decline.
Even if Peterson finds rejuvenation in a city well known for it, the running back system in New Orleans doesn’t really lend itself to big individual games — and that goes double for Peterson, who is behind Mark Ingram on the depth chart and could lose snaps to Alvin Kamara. Not only that, New Orleans has two other backs (Daniel Lasco and Trey Edmunds), a clear signal they don’t intend for one player to shoulder the load —even if one of them likely won’t be active on game day.
In the past three years, the time over which Mark Ingram has been a primary starter, there have only been two games where a non-Ingram back has had over 100 yards; a game where Ingram was injured (Dec. 27, 2015 against Jackonsville) and a game where Ingram fumbled in the first quarter and was benched (Oct. 30, 2016 against Seattle).
Besides that, there has only been one additional game where a non-Ingram running back earned more than 60 yards while Ingram was healthy — a 41-23 blowout against San Francisco where Tim Hightower averaged 3.8 yards a carry to grind out the clock in the second half.
Over the last three years, in games where Ingram entered the contest healthy, the second running back only earned 24 percent of carries — or about five carries a game. And it may be an assumption that Peterson is the second back; after all, the Saints did draft Alvin Kamara in the third round of a rich running back class.
Undrafted Pierre Thomas earned 4.8 attempts per game his rookie year while first-round pick Mark Ingram carried the rock 12.2 times per game. Splitting the difference for Kamara, and there are about eight or nine carries to be had for the young rookie.
Even if that is too aggressive, and it’s fair to assume that Kamara is more likely to take five carries in the game, that leaves about three for Peterson.
It is admittedly difficult to parse the notoriously opaque Saints backfield, but it is important to note that Kamara didn’t dress while healthy in the Saints’ third preseason game as Peterson and Ingram took every snap. On the other hand, it is even more important to note that the reasoning was because Kamara took so many carries in the first two games (while Ingram and Peterson took none) that they wanted to give him a day off.
Preseason usage tells us very little in this case about how the Saints plan to use either back.
While the fantasy community generally projects about 10 carries a game for Peterson, it may be fairer to assume that his carry load is closer to seven, aggressively, and three, conservatively, based on the history of Saints running backs and the fact that Ingram is firmly established as the primary back in their committee.
History isn’t on Peterson’s side, either. Jenny Vrentas at the MMQB went over the careers of Hall of Fame running backs who switched teams after the age of the 30. The overall prognosis isn’t good; those backs averaged 81.2 rushing yards per game with their original teams and 40.7 yards per game with their new teams in the twilight of their careers.
Cutting that yardage in half was common — Emmitt Smith went from 85.4 rushing yards per game to 47.7. O.J. Simpson went from 90.9 to 45.4, Eric Dickerson went from 98.3 with the Rams and Colts to 41.0 with the Raiders and Falcons and LaDainian Tomlinson went from 88.6 to 41.2.
Some Hall of Famers did even worse, with Thurman Thomas dropped from 69.0 to 15.1. and Franco Harris plummeting to 21.3 yards per game from 72.4 with the Steelers.
In the piece, Peterson mentions Marcus Allen, who is an interesting case; Allen went from 58.9 to 48.0 — a smaller dropoff, but not an encouraging bar to clear. Additionally, Allen famously feuded with owner Al Davis, who froze Allen out on the bench during a large portion of his Raiders tenure. If using the timeline provided in the excellent history of Allen’s Raiders career in this post from the blog Out of Ink, one can use the 1982-1987 seasons as a proxy for Allen’s “true” yards per game, which is 75.0.
75 to 50 yards isn’t as large a dropoff as the others, but it’s still somewhat revealing.
Instead, Peterson will have to take heart in Frank Gore’s lone counterexample, a dropoff from 74.8 yards a game to 62.3. While Gore walked into a backfield begging for a starter, making it a poor analogue for Peterson’s situation, they did attempt to surround him with competition and complementary backs while he dominated the carry load.
Throw in the fact that Adrian Peterson is traditionally a slow starter, and there’s a good recipe for underperformance. Peterson has averaged 3.9 yards a carry over the past five years of play in the first three games of an NFL season. This includes his earth-shattering 2012 season, where his first three games produced just below 4.0 yards a carry (3.97) as he figured out his return from a devastating ACL injury.
He’s only produced above-average running efficiency in a third of those matchups and though he topped 80 total yards in half of the early-season games over the past several years, he also fumbled in nearly every one of those games. Even his positive games have large caveats.
Including fumbles, first downs and touchdowns in an adjusted yards metric (where players receive bonuses for first downs and touchdowns, but penalties for fumbles) and Peterson comes out behind the worst team in the league (Arizona) in 10 of those 12 games.
His higher propensity to fumble, lower propensity to generate first downs and overall difficulty in gaining yards in early games all point to a scenario where his performance against Minnesota this week should more likely to disappoint than impress.
It’s impossible to deny that Adrian Peterson returning to U.S. Bank Stadium is an enormous story. But the evidence suggests that Peterson’s impact on the game will be relatively minimal.