NFL Ultimate Questions: Will Adrian Peterson Break the Rushing Yards Record?
Especially in today's NFL, which has primarily become a passing league, Peterson has made everybody else pale in comparison. Opposing defenses look foolish (not that Detroit or Arizona needed much help). Christian Ponder's play is about irrelevant as 90 percent of Samantha Steele's sideline reports. The number 2,105 is having an incredibly tough week, facing the tough distinction of having its top Google result remain either an Intel Core Processor or a New York state tax form forever.
And now, Peterson stands 293 yards behind Eric Dickerson with two games left to go against the Texans and the Packers. Will he put down the long-standing total and etch his own name into the record books?
Our analytics say not so fast, my friend. The odds aren't in his favor.
According to numberFire's Chief Analyst Keith Goldner, Adrian Peterson has a 21.24 percent chance of breaking Eric Dickerson's record. With a projected 214.66 rushing yards in his final two games, Peterson would fall 79 yards short of the all-time record and end the season with 2,026 rushing yards. Not a bad year at all - it would place him fourth all-time and make him one of seven men to hit 2,000 yards. But it's not historic.
Our projections this week against Houston see him with 96.12 rushing yards, while our Week 17 projections against Green Bay have him with 118.54 rushing yards. Thus, it makes sense that the easiest time for AP to make up yards may just be this coming Sunday. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in eight straight games, and doing so again this week would give him greater than a 25 percent chance of the all-time feat heading into the final week.
Behind the Numbers
So just how has Purple Jesus risen from the grave... err, operating table, and performed this minor miracle? It's all about his unreal efficiency per rush. Looking at our Net Expected Points (NEP) formula, which measures how much each individual play increases or decreases a team's expected points on a drive (explained in full here), we see that only two backs with at least 100 carries this season have averaged better than the expected play. One is C.J. Spiller, who in 161 rushes has averaged 0.13 NEP per rush. That means that every time he rushes the ball, he gains the Bills an average of 0.13 expected points on the scoreboard. The other is Peterson, who has averaged 0.05 NEP per rush in 289 attempts. That's it. Next on the list is Marshawn Lynch, who has lost Seattle an average of 0.02 NEP per rush this season.
That's not normal. Not for Peterson, not for you, not for me, not for anybody. Dating back the past five seasons, only four backs with at least 160 carries (10 per game) have posted NEP per rush figures higher than Peterson's current marks: Jamaal Charles (2010, 0.18), DeAngelo Williams (2008, 0.10), Derrick Ward (2008, 0.08), and LeSean McCoy (2011, 0.07). Peterson's own previous career-high was 0.03 NEP per rush in 2007. It's safe to say he's being historically efficient.
And when you have the rushing attempts to go along with it, the combination can mean an explosion of yards. Those four backs up there, all with high NEP per rush figures? None had as many carries as Peterson's current 289 through 14 games; Williams had the most at 274 rushing attempts on the year.
Perhaps it's a good thing that Christian Ponder has been so poor; the Vikings have rushed the ball on 48.9 percent of their offensive plays this season. That's the seventh-highest proportion in the league, behind the Seahawks, 49ers, Jets, Redskins, Chiefs, and Texans. And of those 407 total team rush attempts, 71 percent are by Peterson. Discounting Ponder's 51 scrambles, that percentage shoots up to 81 percent.
The Opponents Dilemma
But despite all of those awe-inspiring AP figures, the fact remains that he doesn't have a good shot to break the record. And the blame entirely lies within the evilest of the evil, the lowest of the low, the guys who make Lex Luthor look like he's just charging five extra cents for lemonade on the corner: the NFL front office. Yes, those No Fun League schedule makers may have gone too far this time.
The Houston Texans squad Peterson faces off against on Sunday is numberFire's No. 5 opponent-adjusted defense this season, allowing 57.94 points fewer than expectation this year. Considering that only seven NFL teams are allowing fewer points than expectation due to the relative strength on NFL offenses, that's not half bad.
While the secondary has been the star (fourth in the NFL against opposing passing games), the run defense has held its own as well. At 49.34 points under expectation allowed to opposing rushing offenses, the Texans rank seventh in the league. That means that Houston holds opposing running games to an average of over a field goal less per game as compared to the league-average play. They're the third-best run defense AP has faced this year behind San Francisco and Chicago.
The Green Bay Packers should be a bit of an easier challenge, but they're still not a roll-over opponent to AP. Their 21.43 points under expectation to opposing passing games is 19th in the league, a solidly average total. Although Adrian Peterson put up 210 rushing yards against them in Week 13, that game seems like an outlier heavily spurred by his one 82-yard rush. Despite 200 yard games in two of the past three weeks, Peterson had not put up that many in a game since his rookie season previously. When in doubt, expect the stats to regress to normal.
With the way he's been running, it's possible that All-Day will average the 147 rushing yards over two games necessary to break the record. It's just not likely. He only has slightly over a one-fifth chance of breaking it as it stands, and his projected rushing total for this week is 51 yards shy of the total he would need to keep pace.
Peterson's a great story, but Dickerson can expect to celebrate with his record for another year.