Inside Slant: History working against Adrian Peterson, other RBs

Jun 1, 2015

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Two of the NFL’s best running backs spent last week hollering into the wind. Jamaal Charles, 28, predicted that technology and new training methods will push him and other runners into mid-30s productivity. Almost on cue, Adrian Peterson, 30, campaigned publicly for an upgraded contract.

Decades of history are stacked squarely against them, and it’s difficult to imagine the lifespan of their position changing as long as NFL defenders can pummel them at will. The average cutoff for peak production of late is 27 years old, as we noted last year, and elite status after 30 — as Peterson’s request would imply — is rare.

In the NFL’s 95-year history, there have been 46 instances of a 1,000-yard season by a running back who is at least 30 years old. Only four times has it happened for one older than 32, and not once since 1984.

New York Giants got 1,860 yards out of 30-year-old Tiki Barber in 2005. (Barber followed with 1,662 yards at 31 before retiring.) The second chart notes that strongman John Riggins exceeded 1,200 yards twice after age 33.

This context seems relevant amid public assumptions of a monster season for a running back of Peterson’s age. It’s true that Peterson will have fresh legs after missing 15 games last season, and those who know him well say he is highly motivated by the scorn he received for his child abuse case. But justifying significant guarantees to his contract for 2016 and possibly beyond, starting when he is 31, would bypass decades of history.

Peterson has proved the exception before, most notably after totaling 2,097 yards a year after tearing two ligaments in his left knee. But consider the case of Barber, who produced his best two seasons at ages 30 and 31. In his first five years, Barber took 629 carries — less than half of Peterson’s workload (1,406 carries) over the same time period (629 versus 1,406). Even Riggins, a workhorse who had nearly 3,000 carries in his career, took about 35 percent fewer carries in that crucial early period. Peterson has more early career mileage on his body than many of the names on this list.

I’m all for NFL players getting as much guaranteed money in their contracts as they can, but this context is what the Vikings and most other teams would use to consider Peterson’s request. In essence, he is asking to cast aside well-defined trends and assume he’ll provide the exception.

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