Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Trading Adrian Peterson

               It’s a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon.  Minnesota Vikings fans everywhere are glued to their couches watching the day’s battle on the gridiron.  The second quarter is a back and forth battle when all of the sudden, running back Adrian Peterson (AP) takes a handoff wide left, performs a deft spin move avoiding a would-be tackler, runs completely over the oncoming linebacker, and explodes into the secondary.  The other team’s last defender has a good angle on Peterson, but as he closes in, Peterson unleashes a devastating stiff arm that plants the defender’s face into the ground.  Boom, 76 yard touchdown run; Vikings fans are going nuts in their living rooms, all asking each other, “Did you  SEE that!?”  In Minnesota, we’ve almost all experienced this moment or something like it, and believe me, it’s exhilarating as hell, but in honestly I would not trade experiencing this moment for the Vikings winning a Super Bowl.  For that reason, I have the unfortunate obligation of explaining to you why the Vikings need to trade away Adrian Peterson.
                Adrian Peterson is an absolute beast; by most accounts he is the best running back in the game.  He was drafted back in 2007, which means he’s entering his fifth season in the NFL at only 26 years old, the prime of his career.  So why would the Minnesota Vikings want to trade away such a valuable piece of the team?  As a rookie, he took the league by storm, even though he wasn’t a starter.  He quickly gained fame for his blazing speed and punishing run style; he could take a pitch out wide and scamper past defenders, or run up the middle of the field and absolutely bulldoze anyone who attempted to bring him down.  Week after week was an AP highlight reel.  However, this punishing style has its drawbacks.  Generally, running backs in the NFL have a short shelf life relative to players at other positions.  They are consistently taking the most physical abuse. If a running back is a bruising or aggressive runner that loves to seek out contact, the damage dealt to his body is multiplied.  Bruising tailbacks such as All-Pros Eddie George and Jamal Lewis often see a dramatic decrease in their skills and production on the field within a few years of obtaining star status.  Currently, the Vikings are in the process of rebuilding their team, meaning they probably won’t be contenders for a Super Bowl for at least two years.  That being said, by the time they finally are ready to contend, AP may be at the point in his career where he will no longer be as effective as he is today.  In order to get top value for him, the Vikes need to pull the trigger on a trade now before age and physical wear and tear take their toll on his body.
                In addition, there is a more pressing reason outlining why Minnesota needs to unload AP now (before he has a new contract negotiated).  The NFL has been an evolving league ever since its creation.  This evolution has made it imperative that league front offices change the way they evaluate and build their teams.  In the olden days, different mantras held true for the entire league, such as, “Defense wins championships,” “You gotta be able to run the football,” or “You have to be able to stop the run.”  These philosophies used to be golden in the NFL, but nowadays they’re not so effective.  In the past 10 years or so, the NFL has transformed itself from a league that used to be about overpowering and outmuscling the other team with the running game and defense, to a league that emphasizes the passing attack and lightning fast defenses.
                In this new league, it has become apparent that there are two crucial cogs to a championship team, a fast and effective team defense and an outstanding quarterback.  Looking at running backs however, you’ll see that premier players at the position haven’t been centerpieces to recent Super Bowl champions.  In fact, if you look at the past 11 victors of the Super Bowl, you’ll notice that there is only one top five running back in the group, Jamal Lewis for the Baltimore Ravens in 2000-2001.  However, that team is an outlier because Lewis was a rookie that year and that Ravens squad is widely considered to have the best defense since the 1985 Chicago Bears (regarded as the best defense of all time).  The last great running back to win a Super Bowl before Lewis was Marshall Faulk, but he was noted much less for his running ability as he was for his receiving ability; he could have started at wide receiver for just about any NFL team. Before Faulk, Terrell Davis was the last big time running back to win a title, but since those three, no top backs have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.  Corey Dillon (he won one late in his career when he was no longer a top five running back), Fred Taylor, Maurice Jones-Drew, LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James, Adrian Peterson, Jerome Bettis (also won late in his career when he split time with Willie Parker), Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Curtis Martin,  Deuce McAllister, Brian Westbrook, Frank Gore, DeAngelo Williams, Ricky Williams, Shaun Alexander, Stephen Jackson, Chris Johnson,  and Ray Rice either are now or were at one point elite tailbacks that have not won a Super Bowl in their prime.  The list is quite impressive, but a more impressive list is this one: Tom Brady (3 times), Ben Roethlisberger (2 times), Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rogers.  All of these quarterbacks are top tier players that have won at least one Super Bowl this decade.  If you count, you’ll see that only accounts for 8 of 11 championships, so what about the other 3 teams?  In 2002-03, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won with Brad Johnson at the helm at QB, but also had an absolutely wicked defense.  2007-08 saw Eli Manning and the New York Giants beat the previously undefeated Patriots, but they too had a stellar defense and hung on by an extremely lucky play; a desperation ball-to-helmet fourth down reception.  And as previously mentioned, there were the 2000-01 Ravens and their phenomenal defense. 
                In contrast, let’s look at the starting running backs from the champions of the past decade: Jamal Lewis, Antowain Smith (2 times), Michael Pittman, an aged Corey Dillon, Willie Parker (2 times), Joseph Addai, Pierre Thomas, Brandon Jacobs, and James Starks.  This is not exactly your Hall of Fame crop of running backs (minus Lewis).  Clearly these players were not the cornerstones of their respective teams, nor were they the focus of their opponents’ game plans. 
                One of the immediate worries for me concerning the Vikings is Peterson’s upcoming contract negotiation.  Obviously, with his stellar career thus far, AP is due to receive a massive payday.  He is a top flight back and deserves to be paid like one.  However, should the Vikings decide to hand him a new contract, it will suck too much money from their allotment and sink it into a player who, while outstanding, would appear to not have an impact on whether or not they’ll win the Super Bowl.  In fact, I would argue that star running backs actually hurt a team’s chances to win a title specifically because they tie up so much salary cap money.  As I write this article, the Tennessee Titans signed their All-Pro running back Chris Johnson (mentioned above) to a reported six year, 54.5 million dollar deal, 30 million of which is guaranteed money.  Kiss Tennessee’s Super Bowl chances goodbye; because the recent history shows support that Johnson (the best or second best back in the league) will not lead his team to a championship.  This is exactly what I don’t want to happen with AP.  Instead of giving him that large sum of money, I’d rather the team go out and spend on a big time quarterback or key defensive personnel.
                Honestly, I love AP. I love that he plays for Minnesota, and I love that he demolishes defenses on a weekly basis.  As a fan of the Vikings though, I have to be objective with my opinions about the team.  I can’t let my attachment to a player or players cloud my judgment about what’s right for the team.  The evidence against star running backs in the newly evolved NFL is clear; they are a thing of the past.  His highlights are amazing, but I’ve lived through seven years and 90 spectacular touchdowns of Randy Moss and 4 seasons of bone crushing runs by Adrian Peterson.  Both players’ highlight reels are otherworldly, but the reality is that neither of those two players are building blocks for a championship team, and I want a title to come to Minnesota.  Highlights can be viewed daily on ESPN, but Super Bowl title is an accomplishment that is rarely achieved.  If the Minnesota Vikings are serious about achieving the glory of the Lombardi Trophy, they need to do the right thing and send AP to a new team.

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