Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
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Three seasons ago, Adrian Peterson finished nine yards shy of setting the NFL’s single-season rushing record. In some ways, the All-Pro is now relearning his position

By Robert Klemko
October 28, 2015

DETROIT — Adrian Peterson hasn’t given up on his ultimate goal—“I always keep the mark at 25,” he’ll often say, meaning a 2,500-yard rushing season—but he quickly realized this offseason that the Vikings had changed their approach. They no longer had the personnel to achieve that endeavor, nor did they have any designs on their feature back trying to rewrite the record book.

“Nobody had to tell me how it would be,” Peterson says. “I could see it when I was watching games last season.”

In March, general manager Rick Spielman let Jerome Felton leave for Buffalo, where the battering-ram blocker signed the NFL’s second-richest deal for a fullback. Minnesota replaced him with Zach Line, a former SMU tailback, and embraced a more balanced offense in which Teddy Bridgewater could grow in a spread-influenced attack, meaning more single-back sets and shotgun. The change troubled Peterson to the extent that, after a Week 1 loss to the Niners, he said he felt “hesitant” standing beside the quarterback and taking a handoff.

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But that’s now all water under the bridge—even if the new formations still feel a bit unfamiliar.

The Vikings are winning. They’re contenders, for now, at 4-2 after a convincing 28-19 win in Detroit on Sunday. Peterson, at 30, ranks third in yards and third in attempts in the league, and he’s cherishing the big victories and even some smaller ones, too. His eyes get wide when it’s pointed out during a postgame media session that his two longest runs against the Lions—75 and 15 yards—came out of the traditional I-formation variants he and Felton once used to terrorize defenses. He grins through a lower lip stuffed with moistened tobacco as if to say, You better tell somebody.

“I know, I know,” Peterson says. “Zach takes pride in his job when he’s in there and it showed on those plays. Hopefully coaches will look at that and say, ‘OK, what personnel did we have in?’ and they’ll take it from there.”

If only it were so simple.

Bridgewater, the 32nd overall pick in last year’s draft, ran an offense that was forced to adapt after Peterson was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list last season while facing child abuse charges in Texas. (Felony charges were reduced to reckless assault, a misdemeanor, in a plea bargain.) Without Peterson, and under new coordinator Norv Turner, the Vikings’ fullback usage was cut by two-thirds. There was more shotgun, less power-running.

A look at the Vikings’ fullback run-blocking participation in 2013 and ’14:

• 2013 (with Peterson): 375 snaps, 23 per game (Felton, Ellison, Line).

• 2014 (without Peterson): 140 snaps, 8.75 per game (Felton).

Peterson’s absence in 2014 only accelerated an inevitable change. (Even with his return to the field this season, the Vikings’ fullback participation took another dip, with tight ends contributing some of the lead blocking from the backfield.) The transition was the best way to bring along Bridgewater, who has demonstrated better field vision and a quicker release in shotgun—and has more passing options when a tight end is on the field rather than a fullback.

The tradeoff: it has hurt Peterson’s vision of running lanes and his overall feel for the game. Consider the shotgun handoff pictured below, taken against the Lions in Week 2. The play was blocked properly, but Peterson didn’t see the cutback lane develop (nor did he have the game experience to trust that it would.)

When Bridgewater is under center and Peterson has eight yards between him and the line of scrimmage, he’s averaging 5.3 yards a carry. When he’s standing closer to the line, without a lead blocker in a shotgun set, his average falls to 2.5 per carry. After Peterson produced 31 yards on 10 carries—including 8 yards on three carries out of shotgun—in a season-opening loss to the 49ers, he said he needed more patience to let plays develop. A week later, he ran the ball 29 times for 134 yards in a 26-16 win over Detroit … but his 11 shotgun handoffs accounted for all of 33 yards.

It’s perplexing, but not an outlier. Demarco Murray, who led the NFL in rushing last season out of a single-back approach in Dallas, has seen his production cut in half in Chip Kelly’s spread offense in Philadelphia this season. (“Sometimes you’ve got to know when to hit it, and sometimes you’ve got to know when to slow down,” was how Murray described his initial uncertainty of hitting holes.)

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Opponents who have played Peterson in the past have enough reverence for his talent to believe he can thrive in any system—until they watch the tape.

“You would think he’s such a great athlete,” says Packers defensive end Julius Peppers, “that he would be able to make that one cut and go out of a shotgun. I guess there’s a difference.”

The difference is likely due to unfamiliarity. Offensive linemen extend laterally for blocks in shotgun more than than they do in tightened, lead-blocker formations. Defensive ends have a greater mandate to rush the edge against shotgun, which can complicate things for a running back whose greatest trick is bouncing outside and racing to the sideline.

The long-term view will always favor the quarterback, but Turner has apparently backed off the notion that Peterson can adapt on the fly. As a substitute, Turner has done a brilliant job of catching defenses off-guard with unique one-back variations that force defenses to respect the pass while creating mismatches in the ground game. (The Chiefs were periodically perplexed by tight ends motioning to a fullback position in Minnesota’s Week 5 win).

What the Vikings still want, however, is for Peterson to start producing out of shotgun the way he does with a lead blocker, because doing so will make their formations less predictable. Three seasons ago, when he became the seventh and most recent back to eclipse 2,000 yards—finishing just nine shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record (2,105)—Peterson was thought to be a back for all seasons. Now he’s looking rather one-dimensional, even if he’s spectacular in that one dimension.

“We don’t run big personnel as much as we used to, but I’m OK with that as long as we keep winning,” says Peterson, his dream of a 2,500-yard season giving way to postseason hopes. “We can get that [big personnel] in there from time to time, or when we play a team where we feel like we really need it.”

But from the shotgun view, Bridgewater has a broader assessment.

“I think you can look around and see it’s a passing league,” he says of the power-running game’s decline. “Everywhere you look you see those guys’ roles fading. But it’s always great to have Adrian in the backfield with the attention he brings.”