As Adrian Peterson entered Week 17 of the 2012 season with the single-season rushing record within sight, DeAngelo Williams of the Carolina Panthers was probably shaking his head and ruefully thinking:
That could have been me.
With just a few small twists of fate, DeAngelo Williams could have been every bit as dominant as Peterson is today.
The simple explanation as to why Peterson is preparing for the Hall of Fame while Williams is muddling through a string of statistically mediocre seasons comes down to a single word: Opportunity.
If DeAngelo Williams would have been given the same opportunity as Adrian Peterson as the undisputed feature back on his team, Williams could be chasing records of his own today. Instead he shares carries in a crowded Carolina backfield as year after year he churns out good, but not great, seasons.
Good players carve out solid careers. Great players are immortalized in Canton, Ohio.
With a few different twists of fate, DeAngelo Williams could be pushing Adrian Peterson as the greatest running back in the NFL today with a possible future in the Hall of Fame.
DeAngelo Williams and Adrian Peterson began their careers in similar fashion.
Williams was the Panthers' first round pick in 2006 while Peterson was drafted in the first round in 2007 by the Minnesota Vikings.
By 2009 they had established themselves as perhaps the NFL's two best running backs.
In 2008 and 2009 Peterson's 3,143 combined rushing yards were second in the league and his 28 rushing TDs led the NFL. Williams was fourth in the NFL in rushing (2,632), fifth in rushing TDs (25), and second in yards per carry (5.4) during those years.
But despite their similar beginnings, the careers of DeAngelo Williams and Adrian Peterson have gone in vastly different directions since 2009.
Over the last three seasons Peterson has rushed for 4,365 yards and 36 TDs while Williams has put up just 1,934 yards and 13 TDs.
The separation between Williams and Peterson since 2009 has little to do with productivity, however, and everything to do with opportunity.
Nearly Identical Yards Per Carry
The simplest statistic to illustrate the similar levels of productivity between DeAngelo Williams and Adrian Peterson throughout their careers is yards per carry:
Adrian Peterson - 5.05 YPC (8,849 yards, 1,754 carries)
DeAngelo Williams - 4.95 YPC (5,784 yards, 1,169 carries)
Since 2006 both backs are among the NFL's Top-5 in yards per carry with Peterson sitting in second place and Williams ranked third.
DeAngelo Williams has been an elite back and every bit as productive as Adrian Peterson throughout his career. This is not only evidenced by simple stats like yards per carry, it is also validated by advanced metrics.
Advanced Stats Give Williams the Edge
Football Outsiders are pioneers in using advanced stats to measure players' performance and productivity.
The statistic used by Football Outsiders to measure a running back's "value" per play is called Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). Since Peterson entered the league in 2007, DeAngelo Williams has been just as valuable - if not more so - than the Vikings' star.
DVOA RB Rank - DeAngelo Williams vs. Adrian Peterson
2007: Peterson 6th in NFL, Williams 10th in NFL
2008: Williams 1st, Peterson 22nd
2009: Williams 10th, Peterson 23rd
2010: Not applicable due to Williams' injury-shortened season
2011: Williams 3rd, Peterson 11th
2012: Peterson 2nd, Williams 26th
From an advanced statistics standpoint, DeAngelo Williams has outperformed Adrian Peterson in three of their five full head-to-head seasons. On average Williams has finished 10th in the league in DVOA to Peterson's 13th.
So why is Peterson building a Hall-of-Fame resume while Williams is worrying about the Panthers getting rid of him?
The answer is simple: Opportunity.
Opportunity Knocks … For Peterson
Simply put, Adrian Peterson has never had to share the ball in Minnesota. Every opportunity has been his. Period.
Williams, however, has shared carries with his talented teammate Jonathan Stewart since 2008. In 2011 the Panthers drafted quarterback Cam Newton who chews up rushing yardage of his own. In 2012 Carolina added RB Mike Tolbert who handled many third down and goal line duties this year.
So while DeAngelo has been as productive as AP over the years, his attempts - his opportunities - have been incredibly limited by comparison:
Average Rushing Attempts Per Game - Career
Adrian Peterson - 19.7 attempts/game (1,754 attempts, 89 games)
DeAngelo Williams - 12.2 attempts/game (1,169 attempts, 96 games)
The Touchdown Discrepancy
Perhaps the biggest gulf between Peterson and Williams is their number of career rushing touchdowns - 76 for Adrian to just 43 for DeAngelo.
But again, this is a result of opportunity, not productivity, and most of it comes down to who gets the ball near the goal line.
Peterson dominates the ball for the Vikings near the end zone. Since 2007 he has scored 28 of Minnesota's 36 rushing touchdowns (78%) from two yards or less. Since 2009 he has scored a remarkable 23 or the Vikings' 25 TDs inside of three yards.
But in Carolina these opportunities are split between Williams, Stewart, Newton, and now Tolbert. DeAngelo has punched in just eight of Carolina's 43 TDs (19%) from two yards or less since his 2006 rookie season.
In the last two seasons alone quarterback Cam Newton has scored 11 of these short-yardage TDs. New addition Mike Tolbert scored seven of these "gimmes" in 2012.
Williams has been forced to share the TD glory while Peterson gets to regularly bask in it.
"Home Run" Plays of 30+ Yards
DeAngelo Williams has also been every bit as explosive as Adrian Peterson in producing big plays. When it comes to breaking off runs of 30 yards or more, the two are virtually identical:
Percentage of Career Attempts Gaining 30+ Yards
Adrian Peterson - 2.1% (36 runs of 30+ yards, 1,754 attempts)
DeAngelo Williams - 2.1% (24 runs of 30+ yards, 1,169 attempts)
Throughout his career DeAngelo Williams has been just as dangerous as Adrian Peterson to bust loose on a long, game-changing run. There is no difference in the explosiveness of the two backs.
Missing a Hall of Fame Opportunity
DeAngelo Williams has been every bit as productive and valuable as Adrian Peterson throughout his career.
But because of the twists of fate that provided vastly different opportunities, Peterson is on the path to the Hall of Fame while Williams shares carries with Jonathan Stewart, Cam Newton, and now Mike Tolbert.
If DeAngelo Williams had been given the same opportunity as Adrian Peterson by regularly getting 20 carries and all of the goal line TD glory, he would most likely be on the same Hall-of-Fame path as the Vikings' superstar.
Author H. Jackson Brown, Jr. once said, "Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity."
If you're unsure about this, just ask DeAngelo Williams.
As he watches Adrian Peterson prepare for the Hall of Fame, DeAngelo knows exactly how expensive a missed opportunity can be.Andrew Sweat covers the NFC South. Visit Andrew's archive or check out these articles:
- Sports & Recreation
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- Adrian Peterson
- DeAngelo Williams