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Lately I seem to be contemplating the end quite a bit. The football end, first with Tom Brady. I’m not sure what that says about my current worldview, and I’m also not sure I really want to know.

Even if it’s just briefly, somewhere late at night behind a closed door in an office cave every general manager spends time in April thinking about the end for a superstar who’s either aging, or consistently absorbing a lot of abuse. Or both.

For Rick Spielman in Minnesota, the subject of his own quiet contemplation is Adrian Peterson.

My intention here isn’t rooted in scare tactics, or to push Peterson towards his end (if I have such a power). Instead it’s to explore a possibility that could really suck.

Peterson is a science experiment when it comes to recovering from injuries, a fact demonstrated when he tore his ACL and MCL during the final game of the 2011 season, and then the following year he came within nine yards of establishing a new single-season rushing record. Forever his knee shredding will be held high as the pinnacle of Peterson’s freak status, and rightfully so. During that same season he also played through an abdominal tear which required surgery.

He’s not normal, but he’s still a human. He bleeds and feels pain, and like every running back before him, the amount of times a medical professional has cut into his skin adds up, and more importantly so does the on-field abuse he’s asked to take.

Which is why although we’d all like to avoid it, this is a fair question to at least consider: how much does Peterson have left? There’s no definitive answer, and even the search for one leads to confusion, and more questions.

Heavy Abuse

I started thinking about Peterson after reading a brief comment from Arian Foster in which he matter-of-factly said his surgery for a herniated disc “wasn’t as major as it sounded“. That’s swell, Arian, but forgive us if we’re a little skeptical of a running back who just underwent back surgery (back surgery…in italics), and one who’s had hamstring, chest, groin, knee, and hip issues in recent seasons.

For Foster it’s easy to locate the cause of that pain: a whole lot of pounding over a short period of time. Foster only became a full-time starter in 2010, and over his 53 game appearances since then he’s logged 1,255 touches, including 351 carries in 2012 before finally breaking down this past season.

What’s Peterson at? As he enters his age 29 season Peterson has recorded 2,336 career touches including the playoffs, 2,126 of which have come on the ground, the far more abusive variety. His peak workload seasons have nearly bookended a seven-year career, which 384 touches in 2008, and 388 during that near record-setting 2012 season (the one which unbelievably featured an average of 131.1 rushing yards per game).

The results have been both highly successful, and painful. Beyond the aforementioned major knee injury and abdominal tear, Peterson also broke his collarbone during his final collegiate season, he’s currently recovering from groin surgery (total surgery count: three), and in 2012 he slugged through an ankle problem too. Eventually he has to morph back into a human, and history has to win.

Right? About that…

History is a mighty foe?

A few years back prior to the 2012 season, Chase Stuart from Football Perspective did some deep leg work on the subject of running back aging patterns, and exactly when they break down. His conclusion: there is no “exactly”, and there never will be.

However, in his study that included 36 top tier running backs (a sample size determined by finding all backs since 1990 with over 5,000 career rushing yards), half of them were “essentially washed up” at the age of 30. A few notorious — and mostly recent — examples of that sharp plunge include…

  • Edgerrin James rushing for 1,222 yards during his age 29 season, and then only 639 yards over the two years that followed. He had 3,714 career touches.
  • Shaun Alexander rushing for 1,880 yards during his age 28 season, and then not topping 1,000 yards over the final three years of his career. He had 2,581 career touches.
  • Jamal Lewis rushing for 1,002 yards during his age 29 season, which fell to just 500 yards the next year. He had 2,899 career touches.
  • Larry Johnson went boom with back-to-back +1,700 yard seasons, and then never topped 900 yards. He had 1,599 career touches.
  • Eddie George powered through the 30 wall by posting 1,031 yards at that age. But only barely, as at 31 his rushing production fell to 432 yards. He had 3,359 career touches.

The mileage is noted there because, though it clearly accumulates with age, that’s the true odometer for decay. Barring another injury, Peterson will easily exceed 2,500 career touches by the end of his age 29 season (his current regular-season pace is 319.9 per year), and another study by Ryan Boser concluded that generally the 2,600 mark is the drop off/death danger zone.

For some like Lewis and Alexander, the age of 30 and the workload which comes with it can be crippling. But others blur that line, and often make it a moving, arbitrary target.

At the age of 35 Emmitt Smith rushed for 937 yards (adding 105 through the air), and he did that while recording the last of his 4,924 career touches. That’s some Herculean and unprecedented stuff. Although his longevity wasn’t quite on the same level, Curtis Martin shattered the 30 wall too. At age 31 he had a career high 1,697 rushing yards on 371 carries (also a career high), and when his final season came in 2005 one year later, he finished with 4,002 touches.

The hope, of course, is that Peterson’s progression into the age abyss more so reflects that of Smith and Martin, and not so much the dips from Lewis, Alexander, and others. But the matter of money always makes hoping difficult.

***

At an average of $13.7 million annually Peterson is the league’s highest paid running back, and he’s currently signed through to the end of the 2017 season. But although this feels downright blasphemous now, a difficult decision is likely only two years away.

This year Peterson is scheduled to make a mighty fine $11.75 million, but by 2016 when he’s entering his age 31 season, a heavily back-end loaded contract increases to $14.75 million before rising again sharply in the final year to $16.75 million. Peterson is a remarkably amazing individual, but it’s difficult to imagine handing any running back that sort of cash mountain with the abuse he’s set to still endure. Yes, even him.

Much like the 49ers and Frank Gore at the end of this coming season, a decision could loom prior to 2016. But right now the Vikings will aim to optimize Peterson while he’s still healthy, and to maintain said health. That’s partly the motivation behind new offensive coordinator Norv Turner saying he wants to use Peterson in the passing game more often. He makes tacklers miss with terrific change of direction ability in space, which is great, and as a receiver he avoids the true bone rattling sustained while taking handoffs. Over the past two seasons Peterson had faced the most eight-man fronts in the league, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

History and the general construction of the human body are both mighty opponents. But Peterson has continually defied all anatomy and medical laws, and like Smith he could beat history now too.