One game isn’t nearly enough to judge how well Adrian Peterson can pick up where he left off after being out of football for a full calendar year. There were too many variables that went into his quiet night in Santa Clara to make any sweeping pronouncements on whether he’ll recapture his form. But after the game, Peterson kept bringing up one point: this Vikings offense is very different than the one he remembers—it’s now geared around Teddy Bridgewater’s strengths rather than the run game—and it’ll be up to him to adapt to it rather than the other way around.
Peterson was held to 31 yards on 10 carries in the Vikings’ 20-3 loss to the 49ers, and added three catches for another 21. It’s tempting to look for reasons for Peterson’s near invisibility. If you were to cite the Niners’ dominance of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, you’d be right—San Francisco rushed more than twice as often as Minnesota and racked up more than three times as many yards. If you were to point to how the 49ers offense kept their purple counterparts off the field and made it difficult for Peterson to get any sort of rhythm going, you’d be right too. If you said that Peterson’s just rusty and needs some more game action, the Vikings would hope to god that you’re right. If you said that Peterson’s 30 years old and is naturally in decline, well, that remains to be seen.
But Peterson was decidedly uncomfortable running from the Vikings’ shotgun formations.
“I felt a little hesitant a couple of times, [taking handoffs] out of the shotgun,” Peterson said.
Peterson is a prototypical I-formation back, big and tall and accustomed to building up a head of steam before taking the handoff. Lined up next to Bridgewater last night, he was getting the ball from a standing start and never seemed to generate much momentum on his carries. His longest rush of the night was just nine yards; take that out of the equation and he averaged 2.67 YPC.
“It’s different because you’re not able to get that full speed, that full steam going,” Peterson said. “But you can be successful doing it. The guys did a great job of doing it last year. I feel like I can run in any type of formation. So as we continue to work on the things we need to work on, we will improve.”
As Peterson noted, he’s the new one in this relationship, not the shotgun. It was implemented once Bridgewater took over as the starter last season, and became the slight default: after Week 4, the Vikings ran 65 percent of their snaps out of the shotgun or pistol. It worked for Minnesota’s run game, but notably, it worked for younger, flexible backs without extensive experience of doing things another way. Per ESPN, Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon combined for more shotgun carries in 2014 than Adrian Peterson has had in his career.
Despite Peterson’s big money and hopes to be the focal point of the Vikings offense, Bridgewater is the man in Minnesota now and will be here a lot longer. The offense is his, and if he’s more comfortable and more effective out of the shotgun, they’re not going to abandon it to ease Peterson back in. (It remains to be seen if Norv Turner calls more run plays from the I-formation than he did last night, but if that becomes a pattern, opposing defenses will pick up on it.)
No, Peterson is going to have to get used to the way things are now. He recognizes that, and recognizes that part of the trick will be waiting for blocks to develop in front of him rather than charge down the defense’s throat.
“You really just need to be more patient, allow the pulling guard to get on his block and hit it up in there. Those are the ones I felt like I was kind of hesitant on. I really wanted to hit like I was coming out of the I-formation.”
It’s a big adjustment for a guy with a hall-of-fame career built on downhill running. The Vikings bet on their old dog being able to learn new tricks when they restructured his contract this summer, but they didn’t bet too much: Peterson’s 2016 salary is guaranteed for injury only. He’s got one season to prove he deserves another.