EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings entered the 2014 season with what appeared to be a carefully laid path toward their offensive future, one in which they would convert some of Adrian Peterson's carries to receptions, diversifying their offense beyond the 2012 NFL MVP and introducing third-round pick Jerick McKinnon, first as a counterpart and then possibly as a successor. They would entrust the starting quarterback job to Matt Cassel, giving Teddy Bridgewater time to learn behind him as a rookie, and sometime in the future -- maybe in 2014, maybe later -- they would develop their offense around Bridgewater as he took the starting job.
That path was littered with so many potholes it was unrecognizable by the end of September. Peterson's Sept. 12 arrest on child abuse charges, and the Vikings' subsequent decision to bar him from the team until his legal case was resolved, abruptly stripped the offense of the player who had been its identity since 2007. By Sept. 21, when Cassel broke several bones in his left foot, Bridgewater was at the controls of the attack. It gave the Vikings a chance to preview their future, and as they leave for their bye week, they have an offense that seems to be forming an identity around its new pieces.
"Norv's been dealt some different scenarios," general manager Rick Spielman said Tuesday of Norv Turner, his offensive coordinator. "I think as you grow with a rookie quarterback, and as you grow with the different replacements on offense, you've got to start to figure out, 'OK, now we've got to do some little things differently.' They're learning our players as much as our players are learning what they want, too, because they have never worked with these guys. We weren't putting as many points on the board, but I think, especially this week, things started to click a little bit more, and we're starting to at least get some continuity with some of the personnel we're utilizing on offense."
It would be presumptuous to assume a player of Peterson's caliber wouldn't give the Vikings a lift, but if he were to return to the team, Peterson would need some time to assimilate himself to a scheme that's forming around Bridgewater.
Since the rookie made his first start in Week 4, the Vikings have spent more time in shotgun sets than all but three teams, and run the ball out of the shotgun more than all but five, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They've called 31 zone-read plays, the sixth most in the league since Week 4, and given McKinnon and Matt Asiata a combined 67 of their 142 carries out of shotgun sets. Peterson, on the other hand, has logged only 86 carries out of the shotgun in his entire career, compared to 1,968 from under center. He worked in the shotgun more often in training camp, and there's nothing saying he couldn't pick up the changes, but Peterson has been at his best when he's had a chance to hit the line of scrimmage with a full head of steam, breaking tackles and daring defenders to bring him down. The Vikings also have been pleased with Asiata in pass protection, which has never been Peterson's strong suit, and they've thrown the ball nearly 60 percent of the time since Week 4. Peterson would have some familiar runs in the Vikings' offense, but with a team that needs to build around its young quarterback, he couldn't assume he'd be the focal point of the scheme anymore.
Eventually, that was going to be true anyway; it seemed possible the Vikings would part with Peterson after this season, rather than pay a 30-year-old running back $12.75 million in 2015, and the radioactivity surrounding Peterson's case only seemed to increase that likelihood. There's a feeling in some corners of the organization that the Vikings are ready to move on, and the sooner they're able to re-form their identity on offense, the more likely a parting becomes.
Peterson has the singular brilliance to override all of this, and if you thought he was motivated to return from ACL surgery with a vengeance in 2012, he's sure to be set on an even fiercer return after spending the past seven weeks absorbing blows from critics. But the Vikings are learning how to survive without him, and they're even getting good at it; according to the Elias Sports Bureau, they've averaged 114.8 rushing yards in 10 games without Peterson since the start of last year, compared to the 89.4 he's averaged in 15 games since then.
"McKinnon's starting to get balance off contact and he's keeping his feet, learning to run with more of a center of gravity," Spielman said. "You saw last week some of the things he can do in the passing game, he caught a little swing route out there on a checkdown and the moves he puts on a guy in space, the couple cuts he made in the Tampa Bay game. ... Especially if you're going to run the ball, you're going to need two backs who can come in and stay fresher throughout the season. But I think we have a nice combination going with him and Matt -- two different styles."
The future appears to have arrived sooner than the Vikings had planned, and while Peterson has the capacity to reverse that trend, he'll have to contend with the fact that his absence helped trigger a change that could make it tougher for Peterson to come home.