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Updated: November 19th, 2013 2:25pm
Numbers Game: How many great years does Adrian Peterson have left?

Numbers Game: How many great years does Adrian Peterson have left?

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by Phil Mackey

Adrian Peterson is perhaps the most beloved Minnesota Vikings player in franchise history. He is also one of the greatest NFL players of all-time and would be a Hall of Fame lock even if his career ended tomorrow.

All of that said, the Vikings - and Vikings fans - must take a close look at where Peterson is at in his career timeline.

2: The number of running backs, since 1980, who have surpassed 1,200 yards in a season after turning 32

Historically, the top half of the hourglass runs empty at age 31 for running backs - and that's if it doesn't run empty earlier.

Adrian Peterson will be 29 in a few months.

If we're being totally objective, Peterson - if he's fortunate - probably has two, maybe three more years left of top-level play. And it's fair to wonder if the decline is already underway, considering Peterson is averaging 4.4 yards per carry, which is a half yard lower than his career average. If we take out Peterson's 78-yard run to open the season, his average drops to 4.0.

Peterson isn't comparable to ordinary running backs. He's one of the greatest of all-time. But even the previous greats experienced significant drop offs around age 29 or 30 (with significant drop-off defined as fewer than 4 yards per carry, missing large chunks of games, or huge yardage drop offs).

LaDainian Tomlinson was 29 when his steep drop off began. So were Shaun Alexander, Earl Campbell and Marshall Faulk. O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson were 30. Edgerrin James was 28. Terrell Davis was 27.

Walter Payton made it to age 32 as a top-level running back. Emmitt Smith made it to 31 until erosion set in. So did Curtis Martin. We'll never know about Jim Brown, who retired at 29, or Barry Sanders, who retired at 30, although Sanders experienced large drop offs in total yards, yards per carry and touchdowns in his final season with the Lions.

Peterson has emerged into the danger zone. His carriage could turn into a pumpkin at any point.

If the Vikings projected to be a Super Bowl-ready team in 2014, it would absolutely make sense to hold onto Peterson. But if there's any chance a current contender is willing to give up a first-round pick and perhaps more in hopes of winning a Super Bowl in 2014 or 2015, it would be foolish if the Vikings didn't engage in those conversations.

As for the PR angle - that the Vikings would have a public relations mess on their hands if they traded Peterson while trying to sell Personal Seat Licenses for the new stadium - it's a hollow talker. Peterson might not even be in the league much beyond the first year of the new stadium (2016). 

4: The number of running backs, age 32 or older, since 1980 who have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season while averaging at least 4.0 yards per carry

Walter Payton (1986), James Brooks (1990), Mike Anderson (2005) and Ricky Williams (2009).

274.8: The number of yards Peterson must average each game to reach that goal of 2,500 yards

OK, that was uncalled for... Apologies.

But as we pointed out before the season, no running back in NFL history had even reached 1,500 yards in the season following a 2,000-yard performance. The combination of regression, attrition, fatigue and other factors has prevented even the greats from repeating such a performance.

Peterson is one of the greats. He might be the greatest. But he isn't immune to the laws of regression. 

Phil Mackey is a columnist for He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
In this story: Adrian Peterson