There seems to be conflicting news lately regarding Adrian Peterson’s ability to suit up for the first game of the 2012 regular season. Peterson himself believes he’ll be in the lineup, and head coach Leslie Frazier hasn’t ruled it out. Other published reports, however, suggest that opening the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list is a realistic possibility. There are some technical details related to the different types of PUP lists that I won’t get into here (basically, if Peterson is placed on the preseason, or active, PUP list, all it means is that he can't practice with the team, and it leaves open the possibility that he could ultimately wind up on the regular season PUP list, which would mean he'd have to miss a minimum of six games).
LeagueSafe’s Paul Charchian, while appearing on the Paul Allen show on KFAN 100.3 FM a few weeks back, raised the idea that putting Peterson on the PUP list could possibly be the best option the Vikings have. By doing so, the team would effectively be protecting Peterson from himself. By all accounts, AP is a freak of nature, and he’s ahead of schedule in his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered late last year. He’s such a fierce competitor, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see him suit up in Week 1. But what if he’s not fully healed? What if he can’t cut like he’s used to, and as a result he re-injures himself? And, if he’s truly not 100 percent healthy (by team doctor standards, not his own), why would the Vikings risk putting him on the field?
It’s a sticky situation, for the sole reason that doing what’s best for the organization in the long haul (i.e. giving Peterson a mandatory 6-game vacation at the beginning of the season) would be an admission that the team doesn’t have realistic intentions of fielding a competitive team in 2012. You and I both know it’s a rebuilding year, but the Vikings would never admit that – not before the season has even begun. And you can bet Leslie Frazier, with his job on the line, isn’t going to admit that (which is another concern, really… if Peterson says he’s healthy, Frazier has every motivation to believe him and put him on the field immediately).
For the sake of argument, let’s look at the first six games of the 2012 schedule and analyze what kind of impact not having their best offensive player on the field might have on the team’s win-loss record.
Week 1 (vs. Jaguars): The Jaguars stunk last year. They were 1-7 on the road. They’ll enter 2012 with a second-year quarterback (Blaine Gabbert) who was even less impressive than the Vikings’ own second-year guy. If you’re looking for a strength, though, it’s probably their defense. Jacksonville finished 11th in total defense, and ninth against the run. Only three teams allowed less than the 3.8 yards per carry (YPC) surrendered by the Jaguars in 2011. A healthy Peterson would give the Vikings offense a huge boost against a solid Jags front seven, but this is still a home game the Vikings should win even if the capable Toby Gerhart is forced to carry the load.
Week 2 (at Colts): The NFL schedule-makers did the Vikings another favor with a Week 2 matchup against the rebuilding Colts. Indianapolis was easily the worst team in the NFL last year, and this will be the second career start for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. Jared Allen might kill the kid, and the Colts spent the offseason surrounding Luck with offensive weapons while completely ignoring a defense that allowed nearly 27 points per game. Only two teams allowed more than the 144 rushing yards allowed per game by the Colts in 2011. For the second week in a row, it’s a defense Toby Gerhart is perfectly capable of exploiting, and it seems fair to say that if the Vikings lose, it won’t be because they couldn’t get their ground game going.
Week 3 (vs. 49ers): This is a loss either way. The 49ers are good. Their defense is even better. Opposing running backs scored just two touchdowns on the Niners last year, and only one back ran for more than 76 yards against them. It’s the kind of game a rare talent like Peterson can have a huge impact on, but if you think the 2012 Vikings can realistically beat a team that was a couple of botched kick returns away from the Super Bowl last year, I’ve got some land in Arden Hills I can sell you.
Week 4 (at Lions): Peterson destroys the Lions. In his career, he’s averaged 99 rushing yards per game and scored eight times in nine matchups. Ideally, against a high-powered Lions offense the Vikings game plan would focus on grinding out yards on the ground and keeping Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson off the field. A full-strength Peterson would obviously be ideal in this scenario, but the Vikes employed the same strategy successfully with Gerhart late last year. During a wild 34-28 loss that ended on the infamous and controversial Joe Webb non-facemask penalty in the waning seconds, Gerhart gained 90 yards on a healthy 4.7 YPC. That’s not to say Peterson wouldn’t have gone for 150 yards on the same 19 carries, but the Vikings were obviously able to move the ball on the ground despite not having AP at their disposal. Plus, like the 49ers game in Week 3, a road game against a 2011 playoff team isn’t a game you’re expecting to win anyways.
Week 5 (vs. Titans): This is where it starts to get tricky. The Titans weren’t a playoff team last year, but they went 9-7 and had a top-10 defense in terms of points scored against (a shade under 20 per game). But their run defense was mediocre, at best – they gave up nearly 130 rushing yards per game at a clip of 4.5 YPC. For a non-playoff team like the Vikings, a home game against a slightly above average team is the type of game you absolutely must win to begin to turn things around. Dynamically talented players like Peterson are the types of players that tip the scales in a game like this. Without him, I feel much less confident of a Purple victory.
Week 6 (at Redskins): Well, isn’t this fitting? The final game Peterson would miss if placed on the regular season PUP list would be a rematch with the team that injured him in the first place, in the same building. If Peterson were in uniform, you can bet the revenge factor would be high, and he’d be very motivated to exorcise the injury demons in a big way. The Redskins are also in re-building mode, however, and they weren’t very good last year. You probably remember that the Vikings somehow beat the Redskins on Christmas Eve last year, without Peterson and without Ponder, both of whom left the game early with injuries. Gerhart gained over 100 yards on just 11 carries, and Joe Webb tossed two touchdown passes to lead the improbable win. Like the Week 5 win over Tennessee, a road tilt against a non-playoff team breaking in a rookie quarterback seems winnable on paper, and again it’s the type of game where a healthy Peterson might very well mean the difference between a win and a loss.
By my count, the first four games of the season should result in two wins and two losses, no matter if Peterson plays or not. The difficulty is that Weeks 5 and 6 both seem like winnable games, but perhaps not if the team is missing its most explosive player.
That assumes Peterson is 100% healthy, though, and even if he is ready for Week 1 it’s highly unlikely he’ll be his usual, explosive self. Most running backs aren’t back to their previous level of play until the second season after their injury, and some are never the same.
I don’t envy the Vikings front office on this one. If their star player, who they’re paying $8 million this year, declares himself healthy in training camp, it will be nearly impossible to keep him off the field. While going the PUP route would erase the temptation to put him in game action before he’s truly ready, it feels like an unrealistic scenario. The best course of action would probably be to carry him on the active roster, but don’t suit him up until Week 5. If he’s even 90 percent of his old self, having him on the field in Weeks 5 and 6 might be the difference between a 4-2 start and a 2-4 start.
Christian Peterson is the Director of Operations at LeagueSafe. He is a contributing writer for Vikings.com and a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on KFAN 100.3 FM. Follow Christian on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP