Ten years ago, Adrian Peterson set college football’s conventional wisdom up in flames by rushing for an NCAA freshman record 1,925 yards.
Built in the Earl Campbell mold of a workhorse running back, he has gone on to a storied NFL career featuring six Pro Bowls and an MVP season.
Thanks largely to his style, there’s little debate against “All Day” being the best running back in the league. But as career expectancies decline and the running-back-by-committee becomes more popular, could he be among the last of a dying breed?
‘WHY SHOULDN’T WE GIVE HIM THE BALL?’
Before Peterson ever took a handoff for the Oklahoma Sooners, he carried every expectation that comes with being the nation’s No. 1 player — a 6-foot-1, 217-pound running back with a 4.3-second 40-yard dash time.
But Chuck Long, OU’s offensive coordinator from 2002-05, knew to keep his outlook realistic.
“You always think, ‘Well, he was great in high school and he’s the No. 1 player in the country and all that, but this is a new level,’” Long said. “It was going to take some time.”
OU quarterback Jason White, the defending Heisman Trophy winner heading into that 2004 season, found out quickly that didn’t apply to Peterson.
“When he walks into the training facility as a freshman, we were all looking at this guy like, ‘He looks like he’s been here for five years,’” White said. “His build, the way he ran, things like that, it was like, ‘Holy cow, this guy is definitely not a freshman.’”
Soon after, Long discovered for himself.
“We knew by Day Two of practice, probably Day One of pads, he could play at this level right away,” Long said. “In all my years of playing and coaching, especially coaching, I’ve never seen a kid that I felt that way about right away. The only other guy I played with was Barry Sanders.”
At 18 years old, Peterson was sculpted like a god, carried himself like a senior and was gifted with unmatched competitive drive.
“At times in practice, we had to tell him to settle down, tell him, ‘You don’t have to do that, those are your teammates, we don’t want them hurt,’” Long said.
Built in the Earl Campbell mold of a workhorse tailback, Peterson was quickly used like one. Despite having a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, the Sooners started moving away from shotgun sets, putting White under center and letting Peterson go to work as a deep back.
He carried 339 times that season. That’s three more carries per game than Billy Sims got out of a wishbone offense for OU in 1978.
“I remember talking with the coaches and saying, ‘Hey, the guy can fly, he runs hard every time he touches the ball, he doesn’t turn it over. Why shouldn’t we give him the ball?’” White said.
Peterson ended up second to USC’s Matt Leinart in the Heisman Trophy voting, and White — who finished third — said he still thinks Peterson should have won.
Ten years later, Peterson is the Minnesota Vikings’ franchise player, and in 2012 — a year after tearing his ACL— he won the NFL MVP after running for 2,097 yards.
He carried 348 times that season, a rarity in today’s NFL. But not all that long ago, bell-cow backs were synonymous with stardom.
If anyone knows the value of the running back position, it’s Barry Switzer.
The legendary OU coach had true feature backs with Marcus Dupree out of the I-formation at OU and Emmitt Smith with the Dallas Cowboys.
However, Switzer is best known as the innovator of the multiple-back wishbone offense. In the late 1970s, Switzer had three first-round NFL picks (Sims, David Overstreet and Elvis Peacock) and a third-round pick (Kenny King) playing in the same backfield.
With Switzer as the master, the halfback position caused some of the most heated recruiting wars in history.
“I had to have one,” Switzer said. “I had four picks in my backfield at the same time because we recruited a bevy of them. We were a three-back offense. We ran the football.”
At the same time, Switzer recognized how to use one elite runner in an option-based offense.
“The wishbone isn’t a place to get the ball to a halfback 30 times a game, but I made sure when Billy Sims went in the ballgame, we had enough predetermined plays where Billy is going to touch it,” Switzer said.
Up the road at Oklahoma State, Pat Jones helped architect Tailback U. Jones recruited and coached all-time greats in Thurman Thomas and Sanders, and though Jones said he doesn’t believe the running back position is dying, he does admit it was in greater demand in the days before spread offenses were the norm.
“(Running backs) were hard to get, because there’s still not many elite guys,” Jones said. “Now when everybody, the high schools in this state, were running the wishbone, there were more guys who lined up at that position. How good they were is debatable, but there were more guys that lined up at running back.”
Schematics or not, there’s no denying running backs dominated the game.
A telling fact: A back won the Heisman Trophy every year from 1972-83. Only two (Reggie Bush and Mark Ingram) have won it since 2000 — and one of those was vacated.
“In one era, you had Billy Sims, Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Thurman Thomas, all about the same period of time,” Jones said. “There’s a bust in Canton of every one of them, but it all goes in cycles as far as elite guys.”
So why are so few of these thoroughbreds left?
First, running back is likely the most physically demanding position in football. The average career expectancy for NFL running backs is 3.1 years, and the number continues to shrink. A recent Washington Post study predicts Peterson himself has less than three seasons left in the tank.
“No. 1 is more punishment,” Long said. “Defensive players are getting faster, they’re stronger. So something’s got to give.”
And of course, there’s the influx of pass-heavy offenses. In 1980, the NFL’s run-pass ratio was nearly 50-50. Since 2000, playoff teams had a combined ratio of 46 percent run and 54 percent pass.
Defenses have changed, too. The advent of amoeba eight-man fronts with versatile linebackers and safeties makes it difficult to scheme for the running game.
Those reasons alone have caused NFL contract values to gravitate away from running backs. This offseason, the top 10 free-agent running backs signed for an average value of $2.47 million per year. The top 10 receivers signed for an average of $4.8 million.
There’s also a continuing shift toward running-back-by-committee approaches in college and the NFL. In the pros, backfield tandems such as Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller with the Buffalo Bills are commonplace.
Last season, top-10 college teams had their lead back receive close to 40 percent of the team’s total carries. From a historic scope, that number is a decline, but not radically low.
However, OU and OSU are both schools rich with tradition at running back, and both have used committee approaches in recent years.
OSU sophomore Rennie Childs said he joined the Cowboys knowing he’d be used in some sort of committee, and sees the benefits of it.
“I feel like it just brings different types of running styles to the game and throwing different things at the defense,” Childs said. “Then we can have fresh legs by switching out running backs.”
But the old guard contends if elite backs were around, they would be used as such.
“When you have Adrian Peterson or Billy Sims or somebody that you need to have touch the ball 30 times a game, they need to play where they can touch it 30 times because they’re difference makers,” Switzer said. “They separate themselves from the committee and they become chairman of the board.”
And there’s little basis for the idea that players who once would have become Hall of Fame running backs are now playing other positions.
“I ask if you’re going to put Earl Campbell at wideout,” Jones said. “Then I get a bunch of blank stares. Are you going to put Eric Dickerson or Billy Sims and play them at wideout? Hell no you’re not.”
Teams at all levels are going away from the idea of using one feature back for a variety of reasons, but in the rare cases like when Peterson walked through the doors at OU, special talent prevails.
Feature backs might be an endangered species, but there’s little reason to think they will be extinct anytime soon.
“You’re going to have a Marcus Dupree, Emmitt Smith, Adrian Peterson coming down the road,” Long said. “Everybody was talking about Michael Jordan, who’s going to be the next Michael Jordan? Well, LeBron James is pretty good. I still think there’s going to be those guys, those special backs in the future. You could be in that cycle where there’s not right now, but there will be soon.”