Minnesota Vikings: Walter Payton
MINNEAPOLIS -- Whenever he returns to the NFL, Adrian Peterson will come back on the heels of an offseason that seemed to affirm running backs can still be paid like headline players. The Buffalo Bills gave LeSean McCoy $26.5 million guaranteed this winter. DeMarco Murray got $21 million guaranteed from the Philadelphia Eagles, and Marshawn Lynch -- who turns 29 next month -- signed a renegotiated a deal with the Seattle Seahawks that has $15 million of guarantees.
But whether Peterson plays for the Minnesota Vikings or gets traded to a new team (which, as a league source said on Friday, is Peterson's preference), he'll be going up against a harsh on-field reality. The 2012 NFL MVP, who turned 30 on Saturday, will begin the second act of his career at an age where few running backs have enjoyed the kind of success that flowed so freely to Peterson in his 20s.
Only seven running backs in NFL history have logged more than 1,000 carries in their 30s, and just two -- Walter Payton and John Henry Johnson -- averaged more than 4.01 yards per carry. Emmitt Smith had 5,789 yards in his 30s on his way past Payton in the all-time rushing annals; if Peterson still wants to break Smith's all-time rushing record of 18,355 yards, he'd have to be 41 percent more productive than Smith in his 30s. And even if Peterson were to average 5 yards a carry in his 30s, he'd need 1,633 more carries -- or roughly six seasons of feature-back level work -- to match Smith.
The Vikings' interest in bringing Peterson back is clearly rooted in the belief the running back will be primed for a big season in 2015. If Peterson ran for 2,097 yards on his way back from a torn ACL in 2012, the thinking goes, how fired up will he be after sitting out for a year and seeing his reputation sullied?
There is certainly some precedent for MVP-type production from running backs in their early 30s; Tiki Barber ran for 1,860 yards at age 30, and followed it up with 1,662 yards at 31. Payton posted 1,684 yards when he was 31, and Curtis Martin ran for 1,697 at that age. All told, there have been 10 seasons of 1,400 yards or more by backs in their 30s, and seven of them have come since 2000.
It's after the age of 31 where even the running backs in Peterson's elite stratosphere have declined. From age 31 to 32, Smith saw his average carry drop by two-tenths of a yard; Payton's tumbled by more than six-tenths of a yard at that point. Only two backs -- Payton in 1986 and John Riggins in 1983 -- have even surpassed 1,300 yards at age 32, and Riggins needed 375 carries to run for 1,347. If the Vikings wind up trading Peterson to a team that will restructure his contract, it might be wise for a team to pack most of Peterson's guaranteed money in the first two years of the deal.
For his part, Peterson told ESPN last month he's "ready to shock the world" in 2015, and said the en masse exodus of his sponsors was actually a blessing in disguise. "I have no endorsement deals or anything," he said. "I have a lot of time, just to sit back and work out and relax. I actually like that; I’ve noticed the times when I don’t have any endorsement deals, I'm able to come back and be my best. I'm not flying here, I'm not flying there, I'm not up, stressed out about appearances."
Peterson's tumultuous 29th year gave him both a physical respite and a motivational trigger, and if you're betting on one running back to shatter precedent in his 30s, it wouldn't be foolish to wager on Peterson. But the running back has officially entered a realm where success has been fleeting for many of his predecessors. He has logged 612 fewer carries than Payton did before his 30th birthday, and 870 fewer than Smith did before he hit 30.
That might give him the ability to remain more productive into his mid-30s than those players did. But it's probably a good thing that Peterson is ready for a challenge; he's got a tall task in front of him.
But time won't give Peterson -- or the Vikings -- this year back, and by the next time he steps onto a football field, he'll be 29 years old, gearing up for the first of two seasons outdoors. The Vikings' next indoor home game will come when Peterson is 31 years old in 2016. In light of all that, it's not hard to feel a lingering sense that Peterson's time as an elite running back might be slipping away.
History certainly doesn't play in his favor. Peterson has run for at least 1,300 yards in four of his seven NFL seasons; since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only 11 running backs have run for at least 1,300 in a season. The number of 1,300-yard seasons by a 30-year-old running back drops to nine, and by age 31, it's down to five. Only one running back since the merger -- Walter Payton in 1986 -- has run for more than 1,300 yards at age 32, and Payton is the only one even to eclipse 1,200 yards at that age.
Peterson's 1,266 yards are the 20th-most by a 28-year-old running back, behind lesser lights like William Andrews, Christian Okoye and Terry Allen. None of those players eclipsed 1,300 yards again after their age-28 season, and only Okoye posted another 1,000-yard season.
Peterson has much more in common with thoroughbreds like Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and Payton, and all three had seasons between the realms of great and dominant after they hit 29; Smith hit 1,332 yards at 29 and 1,397 at 30, Payton ran for at least 1,300 yards each year from 29 to 32, and Sanders had his MVP-winning, 2,053-yard season at 29 before running for 1,491 at 30 and then calling it quits.
But let's say Peterson can do that. He'll still have to carry a Vikings team that could be breaking in another new quarterback, and he'll have to play the next two seasons outdoors, where he's averaged about a quarter yard less (4.84) a carry in his career than he has indoors (5.08), according to ESPN Stats & Information. The running back has made no secret of his disdain for playing outdoors, and while bad weather might limit passing games, it can also slow down backs looking for big gains.
These numbers won't be popular with Vikings fans -- and probably not with Peterson, who enjoys few things more than excelling in the face of long odds. But Smith, Sanders and Payton enjoyed defying the odds, too, and time eventually caught up with all of them; Payton retired after a 533-yard season at age 33, while Smith never averaged more than four yards a carry after 32.
There's strong statistical evidence that elite seasons by a running back become increasingly rare after the age of 28, and even if Peterson can crank out a few more, the Vikings can't count on him being in a stratosphere of his own for much longer. That they couldn't do more with his age-28 season has to register as a disappointment.
"I condition real hard, and actually, I get stronger as I go," Peterson said. "I could have went for 50, maybe 55 carries."
"I would have believed it," he said. "This has been my mindset since I was young, to be the best to ever play. You have got to believe it in order to accomplish it. So if you had told me that, I would have been like, 'Hmm, he is thinking what I'm thinking."
Peterson has a long ways to go to reach the lofty records he wants to hit, but in a season where he's been hampered by leg injuries, he's got 1,208 yards through 12 games. That might register as a disappointment after Peterson talked of following up a 2,097-yard season with 2,500, but he's still on pace for more than 1,600 yards this year, and could win another NFL rushing title.
It also helps that the Vikings seem to have no plans to marginalize Peterson. They are now 5-0-1 in games where he's carried at least 30 times, and coach Leslie Frazier said, "I can't imagine ever getting away from Adrian being the featured guy in the offense, so long as we can put some more pieces around him."
Frazier played with Walter Payton, and hesitated when asked if he thought Peterson could be the greatest of all time.
"In raw numbers, sure," Frazier said, before adding, "We watched Mr. Payton play, and I've talked to Adrian about that a few times. Adrian is, in today's football, the best running back in pro football. Walter, he's pretty special. That would be a good argument to have."
Peterson seems intent on forcing his way into that argument. Has for a long time, actually.
"Jim Brown [and] Eric Dickerson are the guys that I looked up to, the guys that motivated me to be better than them," he said. "I still have a long ways to go. I've reached this mark and it's great, but I still have a long ways to go to surpass those guys, and that is what I look to do."