It’s not uncommon for a 30-something running back to join a new team in hopes of eking out a few more productive years. Usually, these nightcap seasons prove utterly forgettable. Think Emmitt Smith with the Cardinals. LaDainian Tomlinson with the Jets. Earl Campbell with the Saints. O.J. Simpson with the Niners. Tony Dorsett with the Broncos.
On the surface, Adrian Peterson appears to be next in line. He’s 32 years old, coming off a serious knee injury (his second in five years); and had only 72 yards on 37 carries with the Vikings last season.
But there’s also a case for Peterson bucking the “nightcap back” trend. He’s 32, but he played only one game in 2014 and three in 2016. His body has essentially endured just one season of hits over the last three years. Last time Peterson came off a serious knee injury—a torn ACL suffered Christmas Eve 2011—he amassed 2,097 rushing yards. It was arguably the most spectacular single-season performance ever by a running back. And last season, despite the putrid numbers, Peterson did not show evidence of decline. He was a victim of a shoddy Vikings O-line. (That O-line, after injuries at tackle, would go on to ruin the season for the once 5-0 Vikings.)
It’s reasonable to assume Peterson can be, say, 90 percent of what he’s always been. In which case, it’s reasonable to assume he’ll be the Saints’ leading rusher. Many scratched their heads at Peterson joining New Orleans—$3.5 million a year to play for a perennial 7-9 team?—but that doesn’t impact the fact that his style of play fits their offense perfectly. In Minnesota, the bulk of Peterson’s work involved downhill runs between the tackles. As run-game designs go, it was as simple as it gets: multiple double-team blocks across the line of scrimmage, with the ball-carrier juking and jiving behind them. This approach accommodated Peterson’s lack of patience (he’s always been a hit-and-go runner) and it prevented him from having to run outside by design—something he’s never been particularly comfortable with.
The Saints, who prioritize big, road-grading linemen, employ the same straightforward downhill ground game. It marries nicely with their inside vertical passing foundation. The Saints also have two quality third-down backs, sixth-year veteran Travaris Cadet and third-round rookie Alvin Kamara. Peterson, a poor blocker and even poorer pass-catcher, won’t have to worry much about third downs. As a pure first- and second-down player, his adjustment to New Orleans should be seamless.
* * *
* * *
The real story here is Mark Ingram. Fresh off a 1,043-yard season, the 27-year-old has been a stellar, professional runner since 2011, when he was drafted by a team that already had Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. Just as he did in those first few NFL seasons, Ingram could again find himself taking a back seat. Coaches this time of year will talk about a running back committee and how Ingram is still the headliner—and they might even believe it. But come autumn, when the threat of losing becomes real, a coach will gradually lean more and more on his most dynamic runner. Steady as Ingram is, Peterson, if he’s right physically, is the more dynamic runner. By far, in fact. His mix of power and lateral burst is second to none, and he usually comes away from contact feeling better than the defender who initiated it.
History says that as long as the Saints have Drew Brees orchestrating Sean Payton’s scheme, they’ll be a dominant passing team. But if they’re ever going to change their M.O., this would be the year to do it. With Ted Ginn replacing Brandin Cooks, there’s a dearth of weapons for Brees to throw to. We could see a more run-based offense in New Orleans. Maybe that’s for the best, given that a running game helps hide a Saints defensive unit whose struggles have been responsible for those nine-loss seasons.
Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.