Gerhart gets ready for his close-up

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 22, 2011 - 6:48 AM

Like a kindergarten teacher and Kim Kardashian's publicist, Toby Gerhart's job requires a healthy dose of patience.

Most running backs also feel more comfortable when they're in a rhythm. Right now, Gerhart has as much rhythm as me on the dance floor.

Such is life as Adrian Peterson's backup.

"It's kind of the role I'm in," Gerhart said. "Adrian is the best running back in the league, and I play behind him. When I get my opportunities, I've got to make the most of them."

That opening should come this week. Peterson suffered a high ankle sprain in Sunday's loss to Oakland and with the Vikings' season on life support, there's no need to rush him back. Peterson should take his time, get healthy and let Gerhart absorb the pounding while gaining some experience.

Gerhart's contribution in 1 1/2 seasons hasn't fit the expectation when the Vikings traded up in the second round to select him in the 2010 draft. Instead of stepping into Chester Taylor's sizable third-down role, Gerhart essentially has become a stopgap back in times when Peterson is injured.

Gerhart even has fewer carries than Percy Harvin this season. That's not necessarily a knock on Gerhart's talent, nor is this a request for him to get more playing time. Peterson is their best player and needs to be on the field as much as humanly possible.

That leaves Gerhart in a true backup role with limited opportunities unless or until Peterson gets injured.

"It's tough when you're Adrian Peterson's backup," coach Leslie Frazier said last week.

So why did the Vikings invest so much to land Gerhart? The rotation they employed with Peterson and Taylor was a luxury. The team's brain trust treated it as a necessity.

It's no secret that Peterson's weaknesses are pass-blocking and receiving. Taylor excelled in those areas, and it made sense that he handled the bulk of third-down opportunities early in Peterson's career. According to the website Pro Football Focus, Taylor played 398 offensive snaps in 2009 and 447 snaps in '10.

Taylor bolted for more money and the potential of a bigger role with the Chicago Bears. The Vikings suddenly saw a hole in their offense, so they swapped second-round picks with Houston and sent their third-rounder to the Texans in order to move up and take Gerhart with the 51st overall pick.

Their decision seemed logical on one level, but it also overlooked Peterson's potential to improve in his third-down capabilities. While still not a finished product, he's better in pass protection and is more comfortable catching the ball out of the backfield. He doesn't have to come off the field on every third down. Actually, they don't use him enough as a receiver.

The fact Peterson has become a more complete running back means the Vikings don't need a 1 and 1A rotation. That makes Gerhart a true backup to a guy who hates to come off the field.

Gerhart had only 17 carries in the first nine games this season. He had played only 85 snaps before Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus. He played 284 snaps as a rookie -- 100 of those coming in two games when Peterson was injured.

Gerhart's playing time could balloon now with Peterson hobbled, but he knows it's only a short-term stint. Peterson has stayed relatively healthy despite his punishing running style, and his competitiveness doesn't allow him to sit idle for too long.

Vikings coaches have talked in recent weeks about getting Gerhart more involved, but how? Peterson signed a seven-year contract worth $100 million earlier this season. His role isn't going to decrease anytime soon, barring a significant injury, of course. But Gerhart is a second-round pick who essentially collects dust when Peterson is healthy. Couldn't they have found a cheaper alternative to fill that role?

Gerhart has handled the situation well and continues to say all the right things, but in all honesty, what is he going to say? That he should be getting more carries over Adrian Peterson?

So he sits and waits for an opportunity such as this week to come along.

"[Running backs coach James Saxon] always says, 'When you get in there, swing well. Take a good swing,'" Gerhart said, motioning like he was swinging a baseball bat. "My plays are limited, but when I'm in there, I've got to make the most of them."

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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