Why NFL running backs are less significant than ever
Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry, Emmitt, Tomlinson. These names are as common to an NFL fan’s lexicon as Namath, Bradshaw, Elway, Montana and Favre.
Adrian Peterson may be the last running back to gain that kind of fame.
Everyone knows and has an opinion about Adrian Peterson’s off-field actions. Many believe him to be a child abuser and are pleased he has not sniffed a football field since the abuse allegations became public. Some have said that Roger Goddell lost control of the league and the “shield” is being diminished by public opinion.
Well, since Labor Day, NFL games rank as the 12 most-watched shows on TV—the only programs to draw at least 19 million viewers, according to ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell.
The NFL isn’t going anywhere, and neither are the Minnesota Vikings.
Yes, the Vikings have marched on, despite the loss of the NFL’s 2012 Most Valuable Player. They haven’t fared well without Peterson, going 1-3 with a pair of blowout losses, but there is nonetheless a feeling of hope permeating the organization and its fan base, thanks to the potential stardom of rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
So, how much, exactly, does the loss of Adrian Peterson hurt the Vikings on the field?
Not as much as many believe, and rather, about as much as I predicted.
After Adrian Peterson’s earth-wrecking 2012 season, Viking fans probably would have burned down the Metrodome had management considered moving on from their franchise player. (In fairness, fans probably considered setting fire to the Dome anyway, just because it was such a dump.)
But the Viking brass should have traded him.
This is not a “hindsight is 20/20” proclamation. I do not claim to have foreseen Peterson’s parental antics and ensuing absence from the team. The demand for his skills, however, should have made him expendable, and here’s why.
Pssst… The running back position doesn’t really matter in the NFL anymore.
I would argue it never really did, at least, to the degree many feel it did. Sure, some running backs are better than others. Nobody could confuse Jim Brown with Matt Asiata or Barry Sanders with Jerick McKinnon.
There’s a reason most teams split reps between two or three backs: freshness is nearly as important as ability in today’s NFL. The splitting of those reps means the world is likely to never again witness a running back produce the type of career Adrian Peterson has.
Other aspects of an NFL offense simply matter way more than running back play. The truth is found, as it so often is, in the money.
Ryan Clady, left tackle for the Broncos, has a higher base salary than LeSean McCoy, the Eagles all-pro running back. Titans left tackle Michael Roos brings home more bread than Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch, according to sports salaries website spotrac.com.
The stats tell a similar tale. Lesean McCoy led the league in rushing last season, running behind an offensive line featuring five starters who started all 16 games, including two pro bowlers. McCoy averaged 100 rushing yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. This season, through five games, four starting linemen have missed games due to injury, and McCoy’s play has, unsurprisingly, suffered. He is averaging 54.6 rushing yards per contest and 2.9 yards per tote—the fourth worst mark in the league among backs with at least 25 carries.
This may be hard to believe, but NFL teams have actually learned from their mistakes.
Herschel Walker trades no longer occur (unless Dan Snyder or Jerry Jones is involved). For two consecutive years, no running back has been drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. In comparison, offensive linemen were picked No. 1 and No. 2 overall in the 2013 draft, and in 2014, nine linemen were drafted before a single running back was selected.
And in 2005, three running backs were drafted among the top-five picks in the NFL draft. All three backs were unarguably busts, producing a grand total of five 1,000-yard seasons combined in their careers.
In the NFL, offensive linemen are more important to a ground game’s success than the ball carrier running behind them. It’s true.
So back to Peterson and his 2012 campaign. Peterson was nearly 28 years old after winning his MVP trophy and falling painstakingly short of an NFL single season rushing record, held by hall-of-famer Eric Dickerson. Running backs do not age well, and the NFL’s history makes that evident.
Brown and Sanders retired while still in their primes, refusing to play at a level other than their best. Emmitt Smith, probably the most durable and longest-lasting running back of all time, saw his rushing yard totals fall each year after he turned 30.
To use a more recent example, Ladainian Tomlinson’s numbers fell off dramatically after he turned 29.
All this leads me to believe the Vikings should have traded Peterson while his value was at its peak, and they should trade him now, as soon as possible.
I mentioned previously that Herschel Walker trades don’t exist unless maniacal owners like Jerry Jones, owner and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, are involved.
Ironically enough, Jerry was the beneficiary of the original Herschel Walker trade, fleecing the poor Vikings so badly he formed the nucleus of a 1990s dynasty that captured three Lombardi trophies.
It’s time to return the favor. Jones is senile enough to be talked into employing Peterson, who is, at this point, a public relations nightmare, playing an overrated position with skills bound to erode at any moment. Sure, Jones already has DeMarco Murray, who is gashing defenses through the mammoth holes Dallas’ young offensive line keeps plowing open, but Jerry has proven over the years that logic does not apply to him.
It seems plausible that the Vikings could finagle a first or second-round pick out of Jones’ grasp for Peterson, and, if that’s the case, they should get Peterson to AT&T Stadium as fast as 2014’s technology allows.
They should do it because, contrary to a very popular and traditional belief, the running back position in the NFL has been staggeringly devalued over the last decade. And rightly so.