‘All Day’ Adrian Peterson is back doing his thing in Mankato, signing the dotted line a few weeks ago on a restructured deal that brings substantial guaranteed money — $20 million — and includes both escalators and de-escalators based on performance.
Does Peterson still have it, though? He sure thinks so.
Peterson, a guy who’s never lacked in the belief of his own abilities, has once again set his target on a 2,500-yard season. It’s the same proclamation he made in 2013 — the last season in which he played meaningful snaps — only to fall 50 percent short with 1,266 yards in 14 games.
But the  million-dollar question surrounding Peterson isn’t if he’ll eclipse 2,500 yards — he won’t, that’s ridiculous, and probably by design — but rather it’s this: can he still get the job done at 30 years old?
In the annals of NFL history, only a handful of backs have found consistent success in their 30s, and the data actually point to the typical decline starting around age 27.
All Peterson did at 27 was put together one of the greatest seasons in league history, just months removed from a torn ACL. The list of equally-impressive returns from major injury has to be a short one.
A few years later, though, and Peterson’s historic 2,000-yard rushing season seems like a distant memory, lost in the haze of his disturbing off-the-field child abuse scandal.
Indeed, 2012 was eons ago — especially for a running back who’s turned the clock from 27 to 30 — thus igniting the will he/won’t he-still-be-great debate.
On that topic, questions of age and tread are good places to start.
Since 1990, running backs 30-and-older have posted 1,000-plus yard seasons just 26 times. Of those, only three rushers eclipsed the 1,500-yard mark; only 10 rushed for more than 1,250.
Peterson turned 30 in March, but beyond his 30 touches in the season opener last year, he hasn’t played a meaningful down in almost 600 days.
A few years back, Pro Football Focus identified a clear downward trend in production for running backs as they approach 3,000 career touches (carries and receptions). PFF also found that after upon reaching 3,500 carries — a milestone itself — production went back up for about a dozen players. A majority of them are Hall of Famers (or will be soon).
Peterson has the 36th-most touches all-time — at 2,262 total (2,054 rushes/208 receptions) — situating him almost exactly at the point where the decline began for several others. But he’s older than plenty of all-time backs who had as many touches, so Peterson is the rare mature back with only moderate wear-and-tear.
It’s a coin-flip, then, as to whether Peterson will buck the trend of above-30 success. How he handles the next 800 touches will probably decide how that goes. If you play the math out, Peterson can accumulate that many in 2.5 seasons if he sticks to his career average for carries and receptions.
That Peterson has defied expectations before only tips continued success in his favor.
Football is a team game, though, so predicting his future on age and tread alone is insufficient. There’s the matter of how he’ll fit into the offense — he only played one regular season game under coordinator Norv Turner — as well as how good the offense’s prospects are to begin with.
Early indications point to the continued growth of second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and despite the many offensive line woes from last season — the vast majority of which, it seemed, had disappointing former first-round left tackle Matt Kalil’s name being called — the unit finished 12th in the league in yards per carry (4.4) and 14th in total rushing yards.
During Peterson’s NFL career, there’s been little consistency at quarterback save for Brett Favre’s emphatic 2009 campaign. Peterson was often the subject of the greatest portion of a defense’s attention with mediocre-at-best signal-callers like Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte commanding little respect.
The steady Bridgewater might be able to buck that trend — and in fact the Vikings, even with an up-and-coming defense, will probably go only as far as Teddy will take them — all the while benefitting from Peterson’s place in the backfield.
On how Peterson will fit into Turner’s scheme, there are clues to how the guru coach uses backs. For starters, Turner traditionally likes to pass more than run: In the past five seasons, his offenses have held a pretty steady ratio of throwing it 56 to 58 percent of the time. (His 2013 Browns are the lone exception — they threw it a ton, but had receiver Josh Gordon and no-names and has-beens at running back).
But Turner’s passing game has more or less divvied up the production to running backs at a consistent rate. Running backs have accounted for about a third of his teams’ receiving yards, making up 31 percent of the Vikings’ air-attack last season.
Peterson has never been a true scat-back receiving type, but he’s more than capable of hauling in targets to go along with his thunder and lightning rushing style. It would make sense that, if for no other reason than to make life easier for Bridgewater, Peterson would find his share of targets in the passing game. Turner is also no stranger to packaged plays — where passing options are packaged with zone read and option run concepts — which will only be deadlier with a legitimate home-run threat like Peterson in the backfield.
And Turner has never had a rushing weapon like Peterson, save for one still-elite season by LaDainian Tomlinson in 2007. (L.T. turned 28 that year and was a fraction of the same player over the rest of his career.)
That supposes Peterson still has it, though, and the point here is to say whether or not that’s the case.
Peterson is off to a strong start at training camp. According to reports, he looks like the old Adrian Peterson, not an old AP. He stands to be less of a focal point for defenses than he’s used to, and if teams load the box to take him away it might actually be good for Minnesota’s deep attack now that Mike Wallace brought his field-stretching talents in from South Beach.
However, the mythos of Purple Jesus as the unstoppable, incomparable gridiron hero are probably a thing of the past. He’s 30 now, after all.
Making Peterson’s continued success hard to predict is the fact that his career has been fragmented between on-the-field and off-the-field, beset by as nearly many downs as ups.
His prodigious NFL beginnings; the ACL injury; the triumphant, inhuman return from the ACL; the tragedy of the child he never got to know; the “reckless or negligent injury” to his 11-year-old son.
Those obfuscating career moments and a history that shows staying great at his age is rare might stack the cards against him.
Ultimately Peterson probably projects into the 1,300 to 1,500-yard range this season — should he stay healthy. A number in there should be plenty to give the Vikings balance, reflecting the proper allocation of opportunities to their growing number of weapons.
Will we see All Day — or pine for yesterday?
As far as the Vikings are concerned, Peterson definitely still has it, and they’ve got 20 million reasons bet on being right.