Peterson chases legend of Jim Brown
This story has been corrected. Read below.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and the NFL greats who carried the ball before him are not the closest of friends. They don't keep in constant touch. The tie that binds them is that Peterson is almost single-handedly keeping alive the idea of the franchise running back in the NFL. And that's not just a lonely job. There's no consensus anymore that somebody even has to do it.
Peterson would have fit spectacularly well in Jim Brown's or Eric Dickerson's eras. But the 30-carry-a-game running back is supposedly obsolete in today's league. The new norm is all-you-can-eat passing attacks by headline-hogging franchise quarterbacks. Today, diva wide receivers preen as if they don't recognize the rules are so tilted in their favor they ought to buy the NFL competition committee Rolexes, same as grateful tailbacks used to do for offensive linemen.
Peterson prefers to sees himself as a 21st century improvement on the great runners who came before him, not some low-tech throwback to musty, bygone days. And for that trait alone, he has captured Barry Sanders' attention.
"He's more talented than any of us [greats]," Sanders said on CBS Radio last week.
Former Chargers great LaDainian Tomlinson is a Peterson admirer, too.
Tomlinson bristled a few years ago when he was still playing and he heard that Cleveland Hall of Famer Jim Brown had called Peterson -- not him -- "the best runner I've seen in a while." Brown, who played only nine seasons before walking away from football in 1965, is still the gold standard that all backs are judged by, because it's believed his combination of power, toughness and all-around athleticism would've made him a star in any era. But Tomlinson had a more conciliatory view of Brown's opinion after retiring to an NFL Network analyst job last season and watching Peterson amaze and dominate the league after he came back from ACL and MCL surgery in just nine months.
"He's the most feared runner in the NFL right now," Tomlinson said by December. "I mean, the guy is averaging 6 yards a carry. You only need 10 for a first down!"
"Beautiful to watch," Brown agreed on Minneapolis' KFAN radio.
By then, Peterson had worked his way into Eric Dickerson's consciousness, too. And still hasn't left.
Dickerson, you may have heard, took off for a Toys-R-Us store last Dec. 30 with his young daughter rather than sit still to see if Peterson would break his NFL single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards in the final game of the regular season. The NFL Network invited Dickerson to attend, but he declined. His cell phone began pinging with dozens of voicemail and text messages as the Vikings' game against Green Bay went on. He refused to acknowledge them.
The Vikings had to beat Green Bay to make the playoffs, and Dickerson got home just in time to see Peterson take a handoff at the Packers' 37 and break off a 26-yard run with 24 seconds to play and the score tied at 34. But the irony was, once Peterson ripped off that big play to the Green Bay 11, the Vikings correctly chose to run down the clock to three seconds before Blair Walsh made his game-winning field goal. So Peterson was deprived of another carry or two. And that's how he fell a mere 9 yards short of eclipsing Dickerson's 29-year-old record.
Only then did Dickerson call Peterson to talk for the first time ever.
"You wanted that record, didn't you?" Dickerson asked Peterson when he reached him at home that night.
"Yeah, I wanted it," laughed Peterson, a fellow Texan.
Peterson, 28, admitted that coming so close was bittersweet. But he's not giving up at making history.
When a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter slid a piece of paper reading "18,355" across the desk at Peterson this spring, Peterson lit up and said: "Emmitt Smith." Or more precisely, he meant the exact yardage Smith compiled on the way to becoming the NFL's all-time leading rusher.
Told now that even at the torrid pace he's on now, he wouldn't pass Smith until the 2019 season, Peterson said "no, no" -- then eventually offered his own accelerated timetable: Week 16 of the 2017 season.
"Whoo, that's pushing it, huh?" Peterson said.
Absolutely. But don't forget, Peterson already holds the single-game record of 296 yards rushing, so he's certainly capable of chasing down Smith ahead of schedule. He nearly broke Dickerson's single-season mark though he played his last six games with a sports hernia, not just that reconstructed knee of his. And Dickerson's record may be the most remarkable individual feat the NFL has seen -- it's pro football's version of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.
In November and December last season, when the Vikings made their playoff push, Peterson had more rushing yards (1,322) than Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder had passing yards (1,192). And that's supposedly just not done in the modern NFL. Already, defenses have tried everything to stop him, including stacking the line of scrimmage with eight or nine defenders in the box. But according to STATS LLC, 50 percent of Peterson's rushing yards last season (1,019) came after contact anyway.
"Mind over matter," Peterson likes to say.
If just-signed QB Josh Freeman has a career revival and proves even marginally better than Ponder or Matt Cassell at the art of the forward pass -- not just handing off to Peterson -- Peterson could benefit from the help.
This season, he's averaging 105.25 yards per game in four starts, which is off his league MVP pace of a year ago. He needs to average 132 yards a game to edge Dickerson's mark.
Dickerson has been almost comically honest about saying that as much as he loves Peterson -- "Adrian is a class guy" -- he also cannot tell a lie: He doesn't want Peterson to take his record.
"I like having it," Dickerson told the Los Angeles Times a few weeks ago.
A lot of people laughed when Peterson volunteered before this season that he's looking beyond Dickerson's 2,105 mark -- he thinks a 2,500-yard rushing season is possible. But that was before Peterson took his first handoff this season and tore off on a 78-yard touchdown run. And that was before Peterson added a 60-yard run in the Vikings' win over Pittsburgh in London, the last game they played before their bye this past Sunday.
It's hard to rule out anything for Peterson. His running style is an arresting mix of all those greats whose admiration he enjoys.
Peterson has said he consciously tries to hand out punishment to tacklers as Brown once did (although Peterson is listed at 217 pounds, 15 pounds lighter than Brown's playing weight.). Peterson has some of the jump cuts and elusiveness that were signatures of Sanders' game. Like Smith, Peterson can be a 35-carry workhorse who wears down defenses before defenses beat down him. But he also rips off the long, breakaway runs that were Dickerson's trademark during his heyday with the Rams.
But Peterson, who rarely shies away from giving his honest opinion, already talked about Brown, too, earlier this season.
"I just focus on trying to be the best who ever played," Peterson said. "And he's a guy I would have to pass in order to be able to do that."
Wait. Now he's not just talking about mindboggling 2,500-yard seasons, or being the Last Franchise Running Back in Captivity? He's talking about eclipsing Brown, one of the baddest badasses the NFL has ever seen?
Like Dickerson, Brown might not like it. But he won't be able to say he hasn't been warned.
An Oct. 8 column on ESPN.com incorrectly noted Minnesota's next opponent. The Vikings face Carolina. In addition, Brian Walsh's first name was incorrect, and Peterson's number in college (28) was not the same as Eric Dickerson's.
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