Apparently, they mean it this time. The Lions have acknowledged for years they need a power running game to compete with the big boys, and have failed to find one.
Their latest attempt Sunday was unusually dramatic, equal parts determination and desperation. The Lions are signing Adrian Peterson, a former NFL MVP with a legendary combination of power and durability, who also happens to be 35 and was just released by Washington.
Worth a shot? Certainly, with minimal cost or risk. When a team struggles to gain a precious yard or 2, it might as well get a future Hall-of-Famer who has rushed for more than 14,000 in 13 seasons.
The Lions’ move was an eye-opener that underscores two points. No. 1, Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn must be legitimately concerned about the health of their backs — Kerryon Johnson has battled knee issues and rookie D’Andre Swift was slowed in training camp. And No. 2, no excuses, they know they have to do whatever it takes to load up the backfield and contend for the playoffs.
With a 9-22-1 record the past two seasons, Patricia is on public notice from Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp, and so is Quinn. We don’t exactly know how serious she is about demanding the Lions be in contention during this pandemic season, but we know Patricia and Quinn are taking it seriously, as they should.
The Lions aren’t running from reality anymore. In fact, they’re running toward it, toward the reality that time may be running out. Practically every move this offseason has reflected a win-now mode, from draft picks to signings. Peterson is the latest, and although this hints at desperation, that’s OK. It’s time the Lions showed a little urgency with the type of splash move they rarely make.
Some will call it a gimmick, or a gambit. I don’t think it’s either. It’s not a gambit because there’s little risk — Peterson reportedly agreed to a modest one-year, $1-million deal plus incentives. It’s not a gimmick because the current regime has no room to play around.
Peterson, who told ESPN he was surprised to be cut, likely will take carries that would’ve gone to Johnson, but that shouldn’t be an issue. If he earns them, he earns them. Johnson has missed 14 games in two seasons because of injuries, although it’s way, way too early to discount him. Swift has the shiftiness to deliver a different look and allow the Lions to churn through multiple backs.
Is it a game-changer? Doubtful. Peterson did rush for 898 yards and five touchdowns with Washington last season and still flashes the power. But he has topped 1,000 yards only once since 2015 and has played for four teams the past four seasons.
I think it’s more of a mind-changer, a recognition the Lions will be fully committed to running the ball and not just talk about being fully committed to running the ball. Quinn has bemoaned the lack of a ground game since he arrived five years ago. It was a problem then for Jim Caldwell and a problem now for Patricia.
They’ve tried to plug in big backs — LeGarrette Blount, C.J. Anderson, etc. – and drafted young legs, and by the end of most seasons, the Lions rank in the bottom third in rushing, 21st last year. They’ve had some tough injuries but there’s been no continuity, in the backfield or on the offensive line.
They drafted Johnson two years ago in the second round and took Swift this year in the second round. They uncovered a big back with potential in Bo Scarbrough, who also has been injured. They’ve beefed up the line, drafting Jonah Jackson to play right guard and paying plenty for 6-6 right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
Those are nice gifts for offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who had great success in Seattle and Minnesota using the power game to complement a good quarterback. Peterson was his running back with the Vikings from 2007-10 and made the Pro Bowl all four seasons.
Run to win
The Lions no longer can afford to hope Matthew Stafford slings them to success, especially with a below-average defense. You know what really helps a below-average defense? An above-average running game that controls the clock.
“The talk we have and the thing we believe in is being able to run the football, and that’s something we really want to do,” Bevell said last week. “Once you’re able to run the football and willing to do it … you know you’re trying to distort the defense.”
Peterson has been a tremendous distorter and disrupter since drafted seventh by the Vikings in 2007, five spots behind the Lions’ pick of Calvin Johnson. Peterson’s workhorse attitude is renowned. In December of 2011 he tore an ACL in his knee, and returned less than a year later to lead the league in rushing with 2,097 yards and was named NFL MVP.
He can carry a load, and also carries some baggage. He was suspended for most of the 2014 season in Minnesota after being accused of child abuse for disciplining his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch. He pled no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault. Peterson had one more productive season with the Vikings, suffered a knee injury in 2016 and was eventually released.
After bouncing from New Orleans to Arizona, he rushed for 1,940 yards and 12 touchdowns in two seasons in Washington. The Washington team opted to go with younger backs and Peterson will find a similar challenge in Detroit, with a room full of fresh legs.
That’s unlikely to faze him, and he told ESPN he welcomed the chance to work with Bevell again. He’s still climbing the NFL history charts, fifth with 14,216 yards rushing. That’s only 1,053 behind No. 4, a guy by the name of Barry Sanders.
Peterson’s nickname, A.D., is an ode to his endurance — he can run “All Day.” At this stage, the Lions would settle for someone who can run A.H. — “All Half.” Since Reggie Bush rushed for 1,006 yards in 2013, the Lions’ annual leader has averaged 568, including Johnson’s team-topping 403 last season.
Every spring, Quinn steps to the microphone and talks about the need to pump it up, and my goodness, he has tried. Peterson may help for one season, but a permanent fix must be found.
“I think we always want a stable of backs, I’ve said that for a long time,” Quinn said after drafting Swift. “You can count on one hand how many backs carry the load. I think we always need multiple backs. It’s a position where guys get hit, they take a pounding.”
The Lions are still hoping, one day, to deliver the pounding. Perhaps nobody in NFL history has run harder and longer then Peterson. He may be on his last legs, but the Lions will gladly take whatever he has left.