- Peterson is still a menacing presence behind the line, but his lack of versatility has kept him from being on a team roster for much of the last two seasons. Is he really the best option to fill the gap in Washington?
The good news about Adrian Peterson signing with Washington now is that there is still enough time for us to convince ourselves that his new team doesn’t have to drastically change their offensive plans to suit his running style.
Remember the delirious hype heading into last year’s Saints opener? New Orleans was the perfect fit for Peterson. He finally found the right offense. He was totally fine with not being “the guy” until that time when he was not fine with not being “the guy.”
New Orleans’ offense could be read like a large-print James Patterson over the first few weeks of the 2017 season. Peterson would line up in a single back formation with two or three tight ends, facing an eight-man box and mash ahead for three or so yards. Whatever was left fell on the shoulders of Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara over the next two downs.
He was traded to the Cardinals after a handful of games and their offense, too, started to take on two distinct looks depending on whether Peterson was in the game or not (even though Bruce Arians’s quarterbacks operated frequently from under center). Watch Arizona play the Seattle Seahawks last year and see how seriously any of the team’s safeties or linebackers take him as a receiving threat out of the backfield. New Cardinals coach Steve Wilks decided to part ways with the running back despite his No. 1 priority being the establishment of a running game.
“In today’s day and age, we all know that you have to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield, you have to be able to do a lot of different things,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said at the combine. “So versatility is really a key.”
On tape, Peterson is still a menacing presence. There are few running backs in the NFL a smart coach might take over an immaculately-conditioned 33-year-old in close quarters. Outside of an in-prime Marshawn Lynch, there is not a runner who could turn a dire, loaded box into something positive for the offense with more consistency over the last decade.
So why has he remained on the market for so long over the past two seasons?
Good NFL teams have spent the last few years using their running backs as multi-tools out of the backfield. The New England Patriots had three backs with 30 or more receptions a year ago, and the team can still fold up the wings and convert to a power offense better than just about any team in football. Even the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were running as pared-down an offense as any playoff team in recent memory, got Leonard Fournette the ball as a receiver 36 times last year for an average of 8.4 yards per catch.
Peterson has not caught more than 30 balls in a season since 2012, and he’s only done it twice in his career. Also worth noting: Of Alex Smith’s three best seasons as an NFL quarterback, all three have featured a running back capable of creating a ripple in the passing game (Frank Gore, Jamaal Charles and Kareem Hunt).
Washington has now joined forces with the ultimate paradox. A running back who will, in theory, not take the lion’s share of snaps but functions far better when he’s able to get into the rhythm of the game. A running back who excels in a handful of offensive sets in an era where it’s best to be able to transform at a moment’s notice based on the look a defense presents.
Washington’s run game guru, Bill Callahan, has done well in the past with big-bodied backs and certainly influenced the team’s portion of traditional single-back carries executed via his space-creating zone blocking scheme. Still, the team was 16th in snaps with a quarterback under center in 2017 and the Chiefs with Alex Smith were 31st of 32 teams, operating out of the shotgun 72% of the time.
Maybe a compromise between Smith's comfort level and Gruden's offense will make this is one of the few homes for a player like Peterson, if he’s truly willing and able to operate in a part-time role. But if so many other teams are moving in a different direction, shouldn’t that provide a clue?