Have at It: Adrian Peterson's elite skills

July, 22, 2011
7/22/11
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Matt Forte and Adrian PetersonGetty Images, US PresswireLooking at the numbers, Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson aren't as far apart as you might think.
I was legitimately thrilled with your discussion this week of what could have been your basic "he's-better-than-him" slugfest. I asked you to consider the nuances of KC Joyner's column Insider on Chicago Bears tailback Matt Forte, and by and large you did that.

To review: Joyner's believes Forte's skill set is underrated and that he is "as good as" Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson when you analyze the full picture of their production. Joyner cited the Bill James maxim that players who do several things well tend to be underrated.

I asked you if you think all-purpose backs like Forte should be more valued than they are. Case in point: Peterson ranked No. 2 on ESPN.com's offseason power rankings for running backs, while Forte didn't receive a vote. They finished the 2010 season with about the same total of all-purpose yards (1,639 for Peterson and 1,616 for Forte) last season.

Many of you fell in line with escortzx21984, who noted that "this is not a black and white argument." Escortzx21984 continued:
"The fact that teams can't immediately know an all-purpose back's role in a given play is also an advantage. No defense is on the field trembling because they don't know where Peterson is going with the ball. They plan for his run game. A good all-purpose back brings another veil for the offense to hide its intentions behind. That unpredictability is what helps teams beat good defenses.

"Peterson's raw power and reckless abandon are what help him. He would average three yards a carry if he cared about having a long NFL career because defenses always get to him. Instead, his highlights make him look like a tackle-breaking machine (because those defenses always know where to find him) and he breaks a few runs off for huge gains."

Mikem.finke asked: "Why have a great rusher with stone hands when you can have a really good rusher with really good hands?" I'm not sure that Peterson has stone hands, but as Pro Football Focus has documented, he has been near the bottom of the NFL in percentage of passes dropped for a running back. And from watching both players' careers, I think we can agree that Forte excels in relatively difficult receiving situations, including fade routes down the sideline, while most of Peterson's chances are screen and swing passes.

Forte has demonstrated those skills in two different offensive schemes, those run by Mike Martz and Ron Turner. As dmill2069 points out: "[Forte] is worked into the passing game because he is a route-running RB who can create mismatches for teams out wide but his hands are good enough where coaches can depend on him as a receiver."

All of this is to say that Forte has some skills Peterson does not. Returning to Mikem.finke: "[W]ho would take Forte over AP? No one. But it is definitely something that should be talked about."

A few of you couldn't get past the use of both players in the same sentence. Jimbob50cent: "I have never heard of a team game planning around Forte, just as I have never heard of a team game plan around Reggie Bush. Teams definitely plan for [Peterson] because if they do not they get burned."

Why? Because Peterson's running skills are elite. Wrote Joker22310: "Clearly, a back who's a bruiser who can take it up the middle, around the end, or off tackle and break some out for big gains is more important to a team than a multi-purpose back. You simply cannot compensate for not having a back like Peterson. You can, however, compensate for the receiving yards that Forte gets with a solid slot receiver, tight-end, catching fullback (oxymoron I know) or any number of other packages. This is pretty easy."

Ultimately, some of you agreed, each team has done a good job in maximizing its players' skills. Steward2778 noted: "Peterson is stronger and built to run between tackles and break tackles. Forte is not, so he is put in space more to take advantage of his speed, hands and elusiveness. Does it matter how they move the ball? No."

In the end, wrote cds2477: "[P]layers who do several things well are underrated. What Joyner is suggesting is that Forte has the same value to the Bears as Peterson has to the Vikings. Would the Vikings trade Peterson for Forte, NO. Would the Bears trade Forte for Peterson, NO."

My take? I think we should separate the ideas of how each team uses its running back and whether one would want to trade for the other. If you made a list of each player's skills, Peterson's between-the-tackles running would rank in another stratosphere. The biggest advantage he has is the ability to execute running plays better than all but maybe one player in the NFL. I think the Bears would welcome that elite skill set even though they have done an excellent job maximizing Forte.

With that said, this wasn't a question of whether we would take Peterson or Forte if given a choice. It was whether, in the big picture, we should attach more value than we currently do to a player who finds different ways to rack up an elite level of yards.

I'm already on record saying I made a personal mistake by not including Forte among my top 10 running backs for the Power Rankings project. Seeing him play more often than other colleagues should have heightened my awareness and appreciation and lifted me from conventional wisdom.

So here's where I land: We should spend more time considering the "what" -- in this case, total yardage -- than the "how." But that doesn't mean we ignore the "how" or "why," either.

In the end, what I value most is the rarity of skills. A really good all-purpose back can produce nearly as many yards as Peterson. He can be almost as good. But a player with the elite skills to gain yardage when no yardage is schematically available? You can't overrate that.

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