The Minnesota Vikings announced that they would not be exercising their option on Adrian Peterson yesterday, effectively making him a free agent. There will be plenty of talk about where he could go–here’s one from us–and he’s a big name so I understand it.
But I think there’s a larger question–how much does he have left? These kind of questions aren’t black-and-white. A risk/reward analysis depends on just how much a team wanting to give him a chance has to spend. I’m guessing, though, that while Peterson and his agent have to know that he’s not getting anywhere near the money that Minnesota would have paid with the option ($18 million), they still want money near the top of the running back food chain for the future Hall of Famer.
There’s also the element that Peterson isn’t the type of back that can blend seamlessly into a part of a passing offense. He’s not a pass catcher. He’s not great out of the shotgun, and does best behind a fullback. Given his name and notoriety, he’s probably not going to want to be a platoon back and paid commensurate with that.
With those things in mind, I would absolutely pass. Sure, if it was for a lower contract, and an incentive-laden deal, I would be interested. I’m guessing someone else will think more highly of him.
What does the end of a Hall of Famer’s career look like, by the way? I’d submit that 3 games, 37 carries and 72 yards to go with 3 catches for 8 yards bears a striking resemblance to the end. That’s what Peterson did last year at age 31. The top backs usually don’t show this gradual decline where they go from 1,500 yards to 1,200 to 900 to 600. They keep going until they don’t anymore, and suddenly hit a wall (or they choose to walk away before that hits, like Sanders and Brown).
Over his last 8 games, Peterson is averaging less than 3 yards a carry. Here, for comparison, is the last 8 games as a nominal starter for Hall of Famers at age 31 or older (the asterisk represents guys who continued in later seasons as clear backups):
Peterson has more rushing attempts than the group, but his production (or lack thereof) is in line with what was the end of the line for many of these guys. Earl Campbell was a shell of himself and broken down, when he walked away, right?
Campbell had the exact same number of yards from scrimmage over his final eight games of his career as Peterson has had over his last eight.
If we look at the top 60 backs in career rushing yards, to see how many were able to bounce back after a Peterson-type decline, we also don’t find much hope.
Of the 60, 11 didn’t make it to age 31 by choice, by someone else’s choice, or are active (including Peterson). Of the other 49:
- 19 never had a season below 500 yards from scrimmage after age 30, before retiring;
- 22 never bounced back to have a season with 800+ yards from scrimmage again, after dropping below 500 yards in a season at age 31 or older;
- 4 had exactly one season with 800+ yards after a drop off;
- 4 had multiple seasons with 800+ yards after a drop off.
Even those exceptions aren’t all that applicable. John Riggins had zero yards in 1980 because he sat out the entire season in a contract dispute, and returned the next year when Joe Gibbs became coach. Ottis Anderson had suffered injuries earlier in his career and by 30 was a grinding backup with the Giants. When Joe Morris broke his foot in the 1989 preseason, Anderson got increased opportunity and put up a 1,000 yard season while averaging 3.1 yards a carry. Earnest Byner returned to Cleveland as a backup at the end of his career, and when Eric Metcalf signed with Atlanta he moved back into a receiving back role, kind of the anti-Peterson, where over half of his yards came via the air. Marcus Allen was in Oakland and Al Davis purgatory before moving to Kansas City.
Of those that “bounced back” for one season, Joe Perry is the most similar. He left San Francisco after appearing to be done, went to Baltimore, and had one good year sharing a backfield with Lenny Moore. Emmitt Smith rebounded somewhat in his final year in Arizona while adding to his all-time record. Larry Csonka returned to Miami after some years with the Giants, and managed to get to 800 yards rushing before retiring. DeAngelo Williams left Carolina and had a big year in 2015 when Le’Veon Bell got hurt.
Peterson defied the odds when he returned from a knee injury so quickly to rush for over 2,000 yards and win MVP. He was also 27 then. I wouldn’t be the team lining up to pay him several million to see if he can defy them again.