I’ll let that one sink in for a moment.
2,500 yards is an absolutely insane number – only seven players have gained that many yards in a season combining all sources – and only Chris Johnson’s 2009 season achieved it without return yards being thrown in. To achieve it just on the ground? Peterson would have to average 156.25 yards on the ground each and every game. There were only 20 games in the NFL last season where a back hit that level – five of them, to be fair, involving Adrian Peterson. Even OJ Simpson’s insane 1973 season, where he ran for 2,000 yards in 14 games, ‘only’ saw him average 143.1 yards per game.
Also, consider the Vikings will likely be in the run for a playoff spot, yet not on a level where they’ll blow out squads left and right, and that they will be looking for Christian Ponder to take a step forward in his third NFL season, and the continued prevalence of the passing game in the NFL, and, well, you start to get the picture that if Peterson does make a serious run towards that 2,500 yard mark, the Vikings season will be in the toilet rather quickly. It seems pretty clear that this is typical athlete bravado – and when you had a season like Peterson in 2012, where he came back from a busted ACL to nearly set the rushing record, you have to set sights high – even toward impossible levels.
But, hey, this is the offseason, the doldrums between the NFL draft and the beginning of anything that looks like actual news, and most of us aren’t Vikings fans, so whether or not the Vikings will do well or whether Peterson’s ACL will hold up again isn’t our main concern – in a perfect scenario, could Peterson do it? Is the 2,500 yard barrier even possible? Let’s look at some of the limiting factors.
Number of carries
Obviously, you can’t rush for any yards unless you get the ball – these and other obvious facts brought to you by the pedantic reality department – so, to get 2,500 yards, you’re going to need to be handed the rock early and often. Over his career, Peterson has averaged 5.0 yards per carry, which rocketed up to 6.0 in 2012 – considering how most ‘great’ rushing seasons average somewhere in the range of 4.7 yards per carry, you can see how insanely good Peterson has been over his entire career. Still, even at six yards a pop, it would take 417 carries to break 2,500 yards – and at his career average of 5, we’re talking 500 carries. The record for yards per attempt by a running back in a non-trivial amount of carries probably belongs to Jamaal Charles, who averaged 6.38 yards per carry in 2010. If Peterson was able to step up his game to that level, it would ‘only’ require 392 carries to hit the 2,500 yard mark. But, then again, Charles only rushed 230 times in 2010 – and the more carries you have, the lower your yards per carry gets just from getting tired from over usage, which is what’s ushered in the two-running back system used by the vast majority of teams.
400 carries seems like a decent target number for an “everything goes right season”. Five players have hit that number in a single season, most recently Larry Johnson’s 2006 season. None of them even hit 4.6 yards per carry, much less the 6.25 we’re hoping for Peterson here, so we’re already in uncharted waters. Twenty-five carries a game, each and every game – and this is assuming Peterson stays healthy, which isn’t a given – doesn’t sound like too much, but you’re talking about never, ever having a bad game – no off days allowed. It’s hard to even get that many carries, much less use them efficiently.
In the long run, too, that many carries can destroy a player. In the season they racked up 400 carries, those players averaged 1,700 yards. The year after? Only 829. This is part of what’s known as the “curse of 370”, first postulated by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders. Consider it like a pitch count in baseball – it’s not that the 370th carry blows out your leg, but there is plenty of data showing that if you use a back that often, you risk a reduction in efficiency at least, if not injury.
But, hey, there was one player to whom the so-called curse didn’t seem to hurt – Eric Dickerson. The same Dickerson who just had his record challenged by Adrian Peterson. So, hey, maybe AP is a Dickerson-like freak and we don’t need to worry about that. So, let’s give him those 400 carries and hope for the best.
Those 400 carries don’t happen in a vacuum, of course. There are run defenses that will be attempting to stop him from going crazy on them, and some of those run defenses might be pretty good. We can’t just look at Peterson’s 2012 schedule and do math – averaging an extra quarter-yard per carry and seeing where it would get us – because the schedule will be different. However, it turns out these differences are pretty much a wash – in 2012, the average Vikings opponent gave up 113.1 yards per game, and the 2013 schedule gave up 112.8 yards per game. We think of the AFC North as having great defenses throughout, but the Ravens, for example, are actually the fourth most lenient team on the ground the Vikings will face in 2013. Losing the AFC South does hurt some – Indianapolis and Jacksonville were sieves on the ground—but everything ends up more or less offsetting. The good news: if he ran for the record (minus nine) against these guys last season, he hasn’t stumbled across a significantly more powerful team this year.
To get the 2,500 yard mark, he’d need to take advantage of some of the weaker squads. Dallas, for example, let Alfred Morris run for 200 yards, and Bryce Brown go for 169 – and Brown went for 178 against Carolina, too. Cleveland saw Ahmad Bradshaw rumble for 200, and Jamaal Charles scorch them for 165 on only 18 carries. And then, of course, several teams had to deal with one Adrian Peterson.
Add it all up – the top rushing performance each and every team on the schedule gave up – and you get a grand total of 2,601 yards. So, it’s doable – heck, that’s even a 101 yard cushion. Sure, it would involve breaking the 200 yard mark on four separate occasions, and avoiding some of the lower games Peterson had (see: 60 yards against Indianapolis), and…OK, it’s not very likely, admittedly. And, hey, most of those low yardage games for Peterson came early on in the season – of the six times he rushed for less than 100 yards in 2012, five were in his first six games. Maybe when he’s not recovering from horrible ACL injuries, he’ll be able to get off to the legendarily fast start he’d need to blast through the 2,500 yard barrier.
All of that, even our best-case, pie in the sky thinking, is useless if Peterson suffered an injury, and, well, he’s certainly not been avoiding them so far in his career. Apart from the torn ACL, he had a sports hernia in week 10, though that didn’t seem to slow him down – he actually average more than 160 yards a game after the hernia.
Also, Peterson is going to have everyone gunning for him this season. With the workload needed for 2,500 yards? I’d be amazed if he came out in one piece. He seems to have supernatural healing powers, but he can’t be expected to shrug off every blow, not to mention the regular wear and tear of an NFL season. Health is a variable that’s very hard to predict, and it’s probably the biggest limiting factor—more so than the number of carries he could get, more so than the defenses out to stop him. A twinge in the back may not be enough to keep him out of a game, but it could definitely limit his effectiveness. And just one game of limited effectiveness would be enough to have him fall short of his goal.
No, Peterson won’t get 2,500 yards this season, and he knows it. He said it to give him a target, and to get fans going. However, the rushing record he fell nine yards short of last season? Take a look at what we’ve talked about so far – the schedule isn’t significantly tougher, he likely won’t have the slow start he did last season due to the lack of recovering from a major ACL surgery, and we’re talking a more believable 330-370 carry season rather than the 400+ for 2,500. I’m too cowardly to go out and predict yes, Peterson will be the first man to rush for more than 2,105 yards in a season – but if anyone could do it…