Toby Gerhart has had minimal impact as a rookie, at least for a second-round draft pick and Heisman Trophy runner-up who arrived in Minnesota as the likely replacement for the departed Chester Taylor.
Gerhart hurt his knee at the end of training camp and didn't suit up for the season opener at New Orleans, a setback in his progress in grasping the offense and mastering the skills and responsibilities required of NFL running backs.
But after being largely marginalized over the first 10 games while everyone was talking about Brett Favre, the sputtering passing game and the now-fired coach, Gerhart finally got his first significant opportunity to play last weekend when Peterson sprained his ankle in the second quarter against the Redskins and didn't return.
"I think for a minute everybody was like, 'Aw, man!'" left tackle Bryant McKinnie said. "But then I think Toby just stepped up and did a great job going in there. He was running extremely hard."
Gerhart carried the ball 22 times, by far a career high, for 76 yards and his first professional touchdown to help the Vikings to victory. Most important, he didn't turn the ball over.
"Toby Gerhart, man, take my hat off to him and our offensive line, just understanding our situation," interim head coach Leslie Frazier said. "We came in at halftime, we had an idea that Adrian might not be able to go in the second half, and we wanted to emphasize that it wouldn't change our game plan. We were going to trust our offensive line to do what we talked about all week long, and they didn't flinch."
Gerhart had amassed only 86 yards rushing prior to Sunday, although he did make 11 receptions for 128 yards the previous four games. The pass-catching ability was one of things the Vikings liked out of Taylor, who's now playing for the Bears.
"Is Toby an explosive player like Adrian? I don't think anyone is," Favre said. "But he's pretty darn good, reliable, consistent."
Peterson's status for this week's game against Buffalo is uncertain. Frazier said Tuesday an MRI revealed nothing more than a sprain and that Peterson's availability would be determined by how well the running back could perform with the injury.
Frazier said the the team would have a better feel for Peterson's recovery when it returns to practice Wednesday.
"It's tough when Adrian goes down, your workhorse," said Gerhart, the former Stanford star. "You have to be ready to go in there, carry the ball, protect it, make my reads and make my runs."
Gerhart found himself behind not only Peterson, but also Albert Young on the depth chart during the preseason.
"The last thing you want to do is throw a high draft pick in and assume he can take on the challenge of being the third-down back," running backs coach Eric Bieniemy said then. "Now is there a specific role for Toby? He's going to define that role. But you never want to throw a guy that hasn't had that experience yet out there. Will he learn? Yes he will."
In the first few weeks, it was clear Gerhart had a lot of catching up to do. He showed spunk and grabbed some attention when he got into a shoving and shouting match with feisty defensive end Ray Edwards in a training-camp practice. Now, more than three months later, judging by his playing time and increased involvement in the offense, Gerhart obviously has been growing.
Favre, proud of his 10-yard run that put Sunday's game away before the two-minute warning, joked to Frazier that he could always fill in at tailback if Peterson was still hurt. But the Vikings didn't draft Gerhart if they weren't ready to give him the featured role as needed.
Gerhart, who hurt his shoulder Sunday but stayed in the game, said he got a good feel for the workload.
"I think I started to find a little rhythm," he said. "You know, the first two carries were kind of sloppy, was a little stiff out there, but once I got going, you know, I kind of picked it up and got a feel for the game."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.