I promise this isn’t a hot take. It’s a measured take — in the form, really, of a question. I don’t know the answer, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. So let’s take a look at why I’ve been thinking about it.
First, is it nonsense that I’ve even been thinking about it? That’s a fair place to start. After all, Peterson won the NFL rushing title in 2015 with 1,485 yards and was the most valuable offensive player on a team that went 11-5 and won the NFC North. He is one of the greatest running backs in NFL history.
We could stop there, and you could decide I’m an idiot. But let’s keep going.
What I worry about less and less with Peterson these days is his age. Sure, he’s going to be 31 next month. But he’s a physical freak. He defies odds. So let’s assume he remains productive in 2016 and even beyond.
The crux of my question comes from how limited Peterson is in many other areas of the game — some that would challenge any team, some that are specific to the Vikings, all of which seem to be deeply ingrained in a veteran running back.
He said in his post-year availability that he wants be more versatile.
“You look at the young guys, Jerick [McKinnon], he comes in a lot on third down and he presents a different piece to our offense, running routes and things like that. I envision myself doing things like that at a different level.”
There has been talk for years of Peterson becoming a better receiver or better pass blocker. He’s talked for years about ball security. He’s still lacking in all those areas. But the Vikings have lived with those deficiencies over the years because Peterson is such a gifted runner. The net gain has surely been on the side of having Peterson, and heavily at that.
Of greater issue is Peterson’s discomfort running out of the shotgun formation — an issue that became so pervasive early in 2015 that the Vikings had to dramatically alter their strategy to account for it.
In 2015, Peterson ran just 36 times from the shotgun and gained just 56 yards on those carries. (1.6 yards per carry). Early in the season, he said he was “hesitant” running out of the shotgun. He likes to line up in traditional formations. It is who he is.
But the Vikings’ offense wants to utilize the shotgun. Here are Teddy Bridgewater’s numbers from 2015 split into 2 categories:
Out of the shotgun: 205 completions, 307 attempts, 2,076 yards, 66.8 percent, 10 TDs, 5 INTs … and 19 carries for 163 yards and two TDs.
All other snaps: 87 completions, 140 attempts, 1,155 yards, 62.1 percent, 4 TDs, 4 INTs … and 25 carries for 29 yards and 1 TD.
It’s not like Bridgewater was bad when he wasn’t in the shotgun. But he was better in the shotgun. More than just that: when Peterson was in the game and Bridgewater was in the shotgun, it was a pretty clear sign the Vikings were going to throw (and if they didn’t, the play was going to be stopped for a short game). That gives the defense an edge.
In 2015 in the NFL, 61.7 percent of offensive snaps were either in the shotgun or pistol — a stat gleaned from an excellent piece on the influence of Peyton Manning over the years. The Vikings have a running back who isn’t comfortable in that set. Maybe a player who hasn’t been great at adapting can adapt. Maybe the sample was too small in 2015. Still …
That brings me to Forte. I picked him because he’s about the same age as Peterson, so there’s no age upgrade/bias. He and Peterson, in fact, have both played exactly 120 career games. He’s also going to be available, though that’s probably moot.
Last year, Forte was the NFL’s 11th-leading rusher with almost 900 yards. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry out of the shotgun (on 94 attempts) and 4.1 yards per carry overall.
In his career — different usage, but same number of games — Forte has 487 receptions and never fewer than 44 in a season. Peterson has less than half, 238, never more than 43 in a season.
Forte is not a great pass-blocker, but he is arguably better at it than Peterson. He has 20 career fumbles on rushes or receptions. Peterson has 38.
None of this is to say the Vikings are going to move on from Peterson in 2016. As long as they exercise a roster bonus on him next month, he’s back in 2016. It’s hard to believe the Vikings would have gone through all the back-and-forth last offseason just for one more year of Peterson. And at the end of the day, as noted at the beginning, he was the 2015 NFL rushing champ.
Maybe McKinnon, who started to emerge at the end of the year, is enough of a change-of-pace from Peterson that he offsets those shotgun deficiencies. Maybe Peterson will evolve. When asked about the shotgun/under center quandary at the end of the season, Mike Zimmer said this:
Q: Do you think Adrian Peterson lining up more in shotgun would help Teddy Bridgewater be more comfortable in the offense?
A: I don’t know, you’d have to ask Teddy that. I think he does a good job when he’s under center. I think Adrian can do a better job when he’s in the gun, there’s a combination of things.
Mostly this post is an acknowledgement that one of the greatest running backs in NFL history might not be a great fit for the team he’s on — and that a different player, while not as historically great as a runner, might be a better fit.
That’s a problem that — until it’s solved to some degree — will be a major story line as the Vikings try to move forward.