EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — NFL teams make succession plans all the time for star players moving past their prime. The sudden absence of Adrian Peterson from Minnesota’s backfield, though, did not reveal a carefully crafted blueprint.
His hiatus, following a charge of child abuse against him in Texas, could hardly have been anticipated.
The Vikings, thus, have begun to try to make due with an unproven group of running backs, lacking the ready-made replacement they might have been on track to acquire next year. Even if Peterson’s age and salary already made his future with the team uncertain beyond this season, before the off-the-field issue arose, the Vikings were certainly counting on him to be the featured part of the offense in 2014.
“I don’t think you can say, ‘Hey, in this game we’re going to get three or four runs over 15 yards,’ like you would with Adrian,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “So you just have to adjust your plan.”
Matt Asiata, an undrafted third-year player with 62 career carries, is expected to start Sunday at New Orleans. Rookie Jerick McKinnon will also have opportunities to run the ball and catch it out of the backfield. Joe Banyard is the other tailback on the roster.
“It was really tough, not having our best offensive player there,” said Asiata, who had 36 yards on 13 attempts last Sunday in defeat by New England. “All we’re going to do is just move forward and just have his back, but at the same time just play football. That’s our job. It’s our turn to just man up.”
The plan is to play both Asiata and McKinnon, with an eye toward who has “the hot hand,” Turner said.
“We still want to run the football. We still want to have play-action passes,” coach Mike Zimmer said, adding: “We will continually try to use the players’ strengths that we have and go from there. Obviously, it will change some.”
For quarterback Matt Cassel, particularly. He struggled last week, throwing four interceptions, but he shrugged off a reporter’s question Thursday about additional pressure.
“We can’t let that be our sole identity, that we’ve lost Adrian,” Cassel said.
Peterson has missed 10 games since his career began 2007. The Vikings actually haven’t fared that badly when he’s been out, totaling 1,323 yards and 13 touchdowns on 285 rushes. That’s an average of more than 4.6 yards per attempt. Their record in those games is 4-6.
But there’s also the matter of moving on without one of the team’s inspirational leaders. There’s been no denying this week from teammates that Peterson’s presence has been missed and will continue to be as long as he’s out. The message, though, in preparation Sunday has been clear.
“The Saints aren’t going to feel sorry for us,” Cassel said.
Zimmer has tried to remind the Vikings not to do more than they’re asked or capable of, in light of the loss of such an important player. That’s what happened, he said, during the loss to the Patriots.
“We’ve worked real hard this week about getting back to basics and understanding there’s times when you make plays in the game but the game has to come to you,” Zimmer said.
Cassel acknowledged his role in not only ensuring the offense runs smoothly. A veteran he’s helping the players around him stay focused during a whirlwind week when it would’ve been impossible to ignore the extra media attention and unexpected departure of Peterson.
“I think that it’s really important as we move forward. We do have a young, impressionable team. I think that the main thing is trying to block out the noise on the outside because there is a lot of it going on right now,” Cassel said. “You can’t get too caught up in that. You have to stay focused on the task at hand.”