After tearing his meniscus and playing just three games in 2016, Peterson made the
curious decision to sign with the Saints. A decision that was universally panned by the fantasy community and met with a stream of tweets that all essentially asked the same question, "Bruh, whatchu doing?"
Because really ... bruh, whatchu doing signing with a team that already had an established runner AND ran approximately 99.999999999 percent of their plays out of shotgun, a formation you have historically done jack squat from?!?!?
It was a horrific system and workload fit and resulted in literally the most unsurprising outcome in the history of football as Peterson was rendered essentially useless en route to averaging just 3.0 yards per carry on just 27 carries through four games.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, the Cardinals lost David Johnson and the offense lost their identity. Bruce Arians did his best to try and morph the offense into a pass-first attack, which from a talent standpoint made sense given the dearth of difference makers in the backfield. But despite their best efforts, it wasn't working.
The two teams then made an all-too-sensical trade that greatly benefitted both teams. The Cards got a new workhorse and the Saints got rid of an ill-fitting player that allowed their other backs to see an increased workload.
But the question is, is All Day all the way back?
WILSON! I'M SORRY! WILSON!!!
I was on an island.
On the NFL Fantasy Live podcast I started to lay out the reasons I was optimistic for a Peterson turnaround but was met with blank stares from my usually enthusiastic cohorts.
I was definitely flying solo on this one.
I mean hell, I couldn't blame them. There were legitimate concerns that Arizona's offensive line was broken and that Peterson himself didn't have anything left. And there was still a question of workload and scheme fit. Andre Ellington had emerged as a high-volume pass-catching back in a high-volume passing attack. Surely he wouldn't just be pushed aside for an aging back that historically didn't work on passing downs! And what about formation concerns? The Cardinals through the first five weeks were an extremely shotgun-heavy team!
So let's start with the offensive line. From my point of view, yes, pass-blocking was a disaster but the Arizona line seemed to be doing a serviceable job with push and line integrity. Our friends at Next Gen Stats helped quantify their o-line play and confirmed what I was seeing.
The boys in the desert trenches were doing an okay job getting push for their backs, ranking as the 12th best in terms of yards generated for their running backs before a defender closed in. From a rushing perspective, Peterson was landing in a softer spot than most realized.
NOT AS GOOD AS I ONCE WAS
Look, I'm not going to hit you with the "Peterson is a cyborg!" argument here. It's clear the 32-year-old has lost a step. But given his extremely limited touches in New Orleans it was hard to say whether Peterson was completely out of gas or if the scheme and o-line play was too much for him to overcome.
Why does formation matter for Peterson? Well per Next Gen Stats, AP has been a totally different running back when his quarterback is under center versus out of the shotgun.
Over the past three seasons AP has averaged 4.46 yards per carry when running out of singleback or I-formation sets, a stark contrast to his 3.05 ypc average when running from shotgun. For whatever reason, he's more comfortable running this way, maybe it's the way he reads blocks, maybe he needs more build-up speed before hitting the hole, who knows, but it's clear: For Peterson to be successful he needs his quarterback to be primarily under center.
LIKE PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY
Peterson as highlighted, has been great in singleback and from the I. Luckily for him, the Cardinals run a lot of their offense from under center. In 2016, with a healthy David Johnson, about 45 percent of Arizona's plays were run from a singleback or I-formation while they ran plays from shotgun on approximately 49 percent of their plays. I know you're thinking, "Well that's a lot of shotgun!" But in today's NFL, it's actually quite low.
Think about this year's Jaguars. All they want to do is run the ball with Leonard Fournette right? Well thus far they've run approximately 45 percent of their plays from singleback or I-formation and roughly 50 percent of their plays from shotgun. The Seahawks last year ran nearly 70 percent of their plays from shotgun. So even the heaviest of run teams will feature shotgun at least half the time.
But once the Cards got Peterson guess what, that got turned around real quick and Bruce Arians got back to power football.
In Week 6, the Cardinals ran shotgun on an outrageously low 17 percent of their plays while running plays out of singleback and I on a whopping 64 percent of their plays. As a result, we saw Peterson lay waste to Tampa defenders to the tune of 134 yards and two touchdowns. The aforementioned Ellington meanwhile saw zero carries and just one target in the pass game.
So, is Peterson a cyborg? No, but he showed that in the right system, he can still hit holes hard, run violently with good vision and burst.
OLD GUYS RULE
I cannot stress this enough; POWER FOOTBALL IS WHAT ARIANS WANTS TO DO.
So not only do I believe in sustained rushing success for 32-year-old Peterson but I think his presence now unlocks what was a jammed-up Cardinals offense.
The game script was obviously heavily in the Cardinals' and Peterson's favor in Week 6 but with Peterson in tow, the game plan coming in each and every week should feature the artist formerly known as Purple Jesus.
There will of course be some games that get wonky but given that the Cards have an excellent defense, it's hard to imagine that moving forward Peterson won't be featured heavily in the desert.
That is good for the fantasy outlooks of not only Peterson but Palmer and Fitzgerald as well as we saw in Week 6.