A Packer fan comes to terms with the sublime brilliance of Adrian Peterson
“What you did was very spiteful, but it was also very brave and very honest and I respect you for doing that. But the content of what you said has made me hate you. So there’s a layer of respect, admittedly, for your truthfulness, but it’s peppered with hate. Hateful respect.” – Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), ‘Get Him to the Greek’
As much as it pains me to admit it – I love watching Adrian Peterson play football. I don’t particularly enjoy when he plays against the Green Bay Packers, and it’s not as though I want the Vikings to win, but when he carries the ball, the sport feels different. A methodical game of ebbs and flows receives a jolt of electricity, everything else stops, and unbridled athletic skill, made manifest in ferocious determination and desire, is embodied in number 28 in the purple helmet.
When the blocks are lined up, and Peterson hits a hole in stride, there’s a sound that happens in a crowded room of people watching the game. If it’s a group of Vikings fans, there’s excited chatter, followed by shouts, followed by the usual pleas and unnecessary reminders (“GO! RUN! GO!”). If it’s a group of opposing fans, there’s a noise not unlike that of air being let out of a balloon, a gasp, a collective muttering of “fuuuuuuuuuuu…” under the breath. Heck, even when he doesn’t get blocks – even when he’s wrapped up, and he’s going down, he never seems down. It’s possible he’ll toss a grown man aside like a plaything and keep chugging along. Or if it’s late in a game, and you need to stop him on a third down – and you stand him up at the line of scrimmage – there he is, again, somehow forcing his way through, diving across the “unofficial” yellow first down line.
Even if you’re a Packer fan who loathes everything about the Minnesota Vikings –their dumpy stadium, the obnoxious color scheme and fight song, their woefully irrational radio play-by-play announcer, as well as that infernal horn that sounds after each first down – you ought to learn to appreciate Adrian Peterson. Other than possessing a lead foot[i] and occasionally being tardy[ii], the guy’s done nothing to incur your wrath. By all accounts, he’s humble, kind and the hardest working man in football.
Now he’s on a historical run, a quest to break the NFL’s all-time record for rushing yards in a single season. Considering the fact that he began the season at less than 100%, and that his workload was reduced in weeks one through six, this might be the most remarkable individual feat in NFL history. After all, he eclipsed the century mark in rushing just once in the Vikings’ first six contests, and according to Vikings beat writer Tom Pelissero, was unable to make lateral cuts as recently as October 7th.[iii]
My appreciation for Peterson is not a symptom of Stockholm Syndrome, nor is it a sign that I’m slowly losing my love for the green and gold. I’ll argue with anyone who says Peterson’s the best ever (more on that in a minute) and I still take great delight in Viking maladies… especially watching Christian Ponder play quarterback. Since I moved to Minnesota, I’ve been immersed in the cult of AP, but I haven’t participated – merely observed, and appreciated the talent. Nothing more.
Part of this appreciation comes from the random, historical nuggets that can be uncovered when discussing Peterson’s recent 8-game run of dominance. To wit: in 1998, Hall-of-Famer Curtis Martin of the New York Jets rushed for 1,287 yards on 369 carries and scored 8 touchdowns, all over a full 16 game season. In his past 8 games, Peterson has rushed for more yards (1,313) and scored more touchdowns (9) on FEWER THAN HALF AS MANY RUSHING ATTEMPTS (176).
He has exactly as many yards in his past 8 games as Arian Foster has gained on the entire season. His average of 129.4 yards per game is the sixth best single season mark of all time – and all of the top five players in that category (O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson and O.J. Simpson, again) completed their feats before Adrian was born in 1985. Even if his pace “slows back down” to his season average, he’ll still break the record; if he continues at his recent clip, he’ll obliterate it.
His production has him in the hunt for several awards. I don’t know if the ‘Comeback Player of the Year’ award can be split between two players, like the MVP award can, but it should be given equally to Peterson and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. I can’t pick between the two. If they want, the NFL can go ahead and skip the award next year to compensate – shoot, they can just cancel it after this. One of the five greatest quarterbacks of all time, as well as the best running back in the NFL, returned from potentially career-threatening injuries in the same season. Nothing as impressive as that will ever happen again.
As for the MVP… that’s an entire column unto itself, and in the coming weeks, you’ll get plenty of chatter about that from folks who are far smarter and more passionate about it than I am. Suffice it to say, he’s in the mix – an impressive feat for any running back in today’s pass-happy NFL.
There’s also chatter that this season is proof that Peterson is the best halfback to ever play the game. Before I comment, here’s a chart of the other running backs in AP’s stratosphere, with production through their first six seasons, to show you how they compare with the Vikings’ star:
The gentlemen listed above are, in some order, the greatest running backs in NFL history.[v] Peterson will add to his total yardage in this season’s final two games, surpassing Barry Sanders (whose overall numbers are remarkably similar). He’s also second in yards per carry and third in yards per game. A common argument derived from these factors goes like this: “Peterson’s playing in the wrong era – he’s a dominant back at a time when passing is more prevalent than ever. If he had been around two decades, or even one decade earlier, his numbers would look like Eric Dickerson’s.”
There are two problems with this line of thinking – first of all, rushing statistics haven’t dipped significantly in recent seasons. In fact, they’ve been stagnant ever since 1990, when Barry Sanders was in his second season and Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson had yet to wear an NFL uniform. Teams are not running the ball less often than they did before – though the ratio of runs to passes has certainly shifted in favor of the aerial attack.[vi]
So the same number of rushing attempts are available to running backs… but nowadays, of course, multiple backs from each team get the carries. This makes the evaluation of Peterson tricky – while he’s the closest thing we have to an “old-school” bell cow, he’s kept fresher by the newfangled strategy of “running back by committee.” That’s the second issue with the argument that AP is the best ever – he was kept fresh by his backups. We can’t merely extrapolate his numbers and assume he’d have reached 10,000 yards on 2,000 carries. It doesn’t work like that.
And while it’s superficially stunning to consider how good Peterson’s been despite the futility of Minnesota’s passing attack, in historical terms, it’s hardly unique. It’s important to note that O.J. Simpson, especially, was stuck with putrid signal callers for much of his career. In Simpson’s all-time best 1973 campaign, Buffalo’s run-to-pass ratio was 605-to-213. You think defenses didn’t know that number 32 was going to get the ball?
A more modern example, LaDainian Tomlinson, had the following quarterbacks at the start of his career: Washed Up Doug Flutie, Drew Brees Before He Was Really Drew Brees, Ancient Doug Flutie, Almost the Great Drew Brees, and Rookie Philip Rivers. Sounds pretty comparable to Peterson’s list: Decent Tarvaris Jackson, Gus Frerotte For Some Reason, Vengeful Brett Favre, Post-Sexting Scandal Brett Favre, Fat Donovan McNabb, and Christian Steele-Ponder.
Speaking of Tomlinson, there’s also the problem of pass-catching for Adrian Peterson, shown in the following chart:
Some don’t like including receiving statistics in the evaluation of running backs – but it’s an integral part of playing the position. In this respect, Peterson’s output is pedestrian, especially in comparison with Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson.
I’m not ready to stand on the table and say, definitively, that I know who the best running back of all-time is. What I do know is this – it’s not Adrian Peterson, and there’s no shame in that. Tomlinson, Simpson, Brown and (maybe) Eric Dickerson are ahead of him. At least, that’s what the numbers say to me.
At the same time, I realize that football isn’t played in statistical models or football-reference websites. The point of sports is to watch the games, to get excited, to appreciate the subtleties and debate about intangibles. I am too young to remember Simpson or Dickerson, and Brown played before most of the games were even caught on film. LaDainian Tomlinson never scared me the way Adrian Peterson scares me. The numbers might say he was better – I’m afraid my eyeballs tell another story.
The tug-of-war between the objective and subjective forces in our brains is part of what makes discussing and writing about sports so much fun. We (usually) get the fun payoff of debating without devolving into the partisan bickering that any political discussion inevitably descends into. Black and white facts stack up against full-color replays, and we’re left to sort through it all. Do you think Peterson’s the best of all time? Well, he scares the BeJesus out of me, so I guess I see your point.
I guess there’s no harm in saying he “could” be. His career isn’t finished, yet. He could be like Earl Campbell and simply wither away at 29, beaten and bruised and used. Or he could be Emmitt Smith, productive and remarkably healthy until he’s in his late 30s. The debate will rage for years to come, and he’ll be a source of pride for Minnesotans, and a source of envy for those of us who love the Green and Gold.
How should Packer fans handle it? It’s not like the Vikings are a threat to Green Bay’s standard for success – Lombardi Trophies. A team whose best player is a running back can’t win the Super Bowl anyway; what harm is there in letting our poor, snakebitten rivals to the west have a little fun now and again?
Hopefully, Packer and Viking fans both found something they loved and loathed about what I’ve said, here. It’s possible to feel both at the same time, you know.
BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below
*One more thing. Every nice thing I said about Adrian Peterson is hereby null and void if his urine or blood is ever found to be dirty in the teeniest, tiniest sense. I might appear to be a rational fan, full of respect for a truly wonderful player on my favorite team’s arch rival, but if he’s on horse steroids or HGH I will unload self-righteous hell on every purple-wearing Minnesotan dumb enough to come within earshot. Not that I think he’s using, or anything…
[iv] This is actually Jim Brown’s first seven seasons – since they played only 14 games per year back then, it helps the math work out a little better.
[v] O.J. Simpson didn’t fit neatly into the chart because he had an odd career; he followed three seasons as a backup with six transcendent years (which included 1973, the greatest season by a running back, ever) and finished his career with three injury-riddled years. His “apex” numbers would’ve slotted him just ahead of Barry Sanders – 87 games, 1800 rushes, 8849 yards, 4.9 yards per attempt, and 46 touchdowns on 101.6 yards per game. He also had the best statistical season of all-time by a running back, in 1973.
[vi] It’s worth mentioning two other small points – first, the average gain per rushing attempt is at an all-time high this season, and second, this rushing success likely has something to do with the fact that contact practices are limited, and tackling technique has gone the way of the dodo bird. I wanted to include this in the article, but it seemed too “hater-ific” and I chickened out. Oh, well. It made it into a footnote.