EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Sometime in his first several days as the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator, Norv Turner walked past a picture in the team offices of Adrian Peterson from his record-breaking 296-yard game during his rookie season. Peterson could be seen racing down the San Diego Chargers' sideline, on the way to a game-clinching 46-yard touchdown.
The coach of that Chargers team was Turner. And when he looked at the picture, he saw himself watching Peterson run by.
"I’ve seen him at his best first-hand," Turner said. "I don’t know how you can compare guys at that level because they all have their own way of doing things."
Turner started his NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams when Eric Dickerson was still there. He was Emmitt Smith's offensive coordinator in Dallas, and had LaDainian Tomlinson on those Chargers teams. His legacy in the NFL has been made primarily through his contributions to the downfield passing game, but when Turner's teams have been at their best, he's had a dominant running back, too.
He knows what an asset Peterson can be to him in Minnesota, and Turner has made ingratiating himself to Peterson one of his early goals with the Vikings. Peterson was a staunch supporter of former coach Leslie Frazier, and reserved judgment on the Vikings' hiring of head coach Mike Zimmer until he saw whom the team would bring in as its offensive coordinator. When Turner was hired, Peterson praised the move. The two also talked recently on the phone, Turner said.
"He was excited. It was a very casual conversation," Turner said. "At this time of year, you don’t talk football, but I think players and coaches know about players and coaches in the league. He’s talked to people I’ve coached and been with. I think he understands that the biggest thing to me is we’re trying to win. He’s at a point in his career where he’d like to go, No. 1, be in the playoffs, and No. 2 have success in the playoffs and ultimately win a championship. I think he’s at a point in his career where he’s done a lot of things in individual goals and accomplishments. And he expressed that whatever it takes for us he wants to do."
Under Turner, the Vikings' plan for Peterson could look slightly different than how the 2012 NFL MVP has been used in the past. He talked about wanting to get Peterson the ball in space more often, which could sound like sweet poetry to Vikings fans who have wondered why Peterson hasn't been used as a receiving threat more over the years. The best season of Peterson's career as a receiver, not surprisingly, came in 2009, when he caught 43 passes for 436 yards from Brett Favre, who used running backs as receivers with great success during his career.
"He’s run the ball in closed-in quarters with a lot of defenders there and he makes a lot of long runs, making people miss or running over people," Turner said. "It’s hard to do, but we would like to get him in space and getting the field spread a little bit better for for him."
If Turner is able to get Peterson in the open field more often, either by throwing him the ball or by reducing the number of defenders in the box, it could help take some of the wear off a running back who just had his third surgery in as many years and will be 29 in March. Peterson has logged more carries against eight-man fronts than any running back in the NFL the past two years, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Under previous offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, Peterson played in a system that often employed two tight ends or bunched receivers close to the line of scrimmage, inviting defenders to crowd the box. Rather than creating more traffic -- some of it there to help Peterson -- Turner wants to see if he can make the running back's yards easier by isolating him against defenders.
And when it's time for Peterson to do his heavy work, Turner wants much of it to come at the end of games. It was no accident that during his MVP season, Peterson logged a NFL-best 361 yards in the final 10 minutes of games his team was leading, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In 2013, Peterson had just 56 yards in those situations; third-string running back Matt Asiata, who filled in for Peterson in two games he missed because of injury, had 99.
Turner reminisced about Smith's days of being one of the game's great closers, churning through tired defenses and running the clock out with first downs for the Cowboys, and wanted to get the Vikings back to a point where Peterson could do the same thing. That makes sense for any running back, and the Vikings have been built to play with a lead.
The difference is, when they've fallen behind in recent years, they haven't had the passing game to make the game close and make Peterson effective again.
"You have to be good in enough things so that when a team overplays the run, you can throw it," Turner said. "Having a runner like Adrian can and should able to help a young quarterback. It can be a hindrance sometimes because if you aren’t giving him the ball, it's like you aren’t trying to win. Those are things that I’ve tried to manage."