Eric Dickerson was a great running back. But even if he still holds the single-season rushing record after this Sunday, when Adrian Peterson and his surgically repaired knee will be done churning out of the Minnesota backfield, chances are that Peterson will have done something Dickerson could have never touched.
Peterson is about to change the way the NFL plays offense.
It sounds funny to anoint Peterson as the next great one, even with his 1,898 yards and 6.0 yards per carry this season. Running backs, after all, are the greatest of the shining stars in the NFL — so, so bright when they first light up, then so quickly flaming out when their bodies break after a few brief seasons of magical play.
A great season by an NFL running back has usually been just that — one great season for one great player, and not much more.
But what Peterson is doing is not just piling up numbers. This is not Chris Johnson in 2009, notching 2,006 yards then getting shut down when he had lesser teammates and tougher opponents in following years. Many a running back has posted a season to remember, but what Peterson has done so far this year has implications for the future.
First, let’s consider what Peterson has done to injury prognostications. ACL tears are no longer the kiss of death, but now, after what Peterson and others have done, there are questions of whether they’re even a debilitating injury at all. Not only has Peterson bounced back, but he’s done it in a much shorter time than the usual one-year recovery window. If Peterson fails to hit another high mark for the rest of his career, he will always have this — a monstrous season built on an epic recovery that redefined how athletes handle injuries.
But Peterson is also in position to reshape the game as a whole. Thanks to his production, the Vikings are 9-6 and spoiling for a playoff spot, and they’re doing it despite having a young quarterback who regularly contends for the worst performance in the league. Peterson has carried this team, and he’s done it by playing better and better against tougher opposition. Teams have known Minnesota’s game plan, and they’ve tried to stop Peterson at all costs. Peterson has just kept attacking, putting up huge numbers even when everyone knows he’s taking the ball.
Peterson isn’t just blowing through defenses on semi-strengthened legs. He is tearing past players whose only goal is to stop him, ripping off runs that take advantage of speed, power and precise cuts when defenses are sending most of their players into the box to stop him. Peterson isn’t gaining 200 yards a game (which he’s done twice this season, boosting his 126.5-yard-a-game average) in garbage time. He’s doing it when the defense is planning for him and must stop him to win the game.
In that way, Peterson is changing the idea of what an NFL offense can be. It’s one thing to have a great running back who can reel off incredible plays, but it’s another to be able to consistently rely on a rusher to log more than 150 yards of offense and supply 20-plus (or 50-plus) yard runs throughout a game. Peterson is a running back who is a deep threat with just his legs.
Now, a pre-eminent running back is not news. Plenty of teams have relied on great backs to carry their offenses. But where Peterson is different, and where he can singularly change the game in a way no other running back has, is the era in which he’s doing it.
Just months ago, any NFL expert would have said that the age of great running backs in the NFL was over. For several years, the league has been adding more and more offense, and that has come via great quarterbacks and versatile receivers. Running backs were still a part of the game, but they were increasingly becoming a throwaway piece — a token to balance the offense, an option to catch passes, an easy way to plunge into the end zone in short-yardage situations. The running back as NFL history knew it — a player relied upon for a huge workload, who could swing the fate of the game — was long gone, as were the paychecks and cache that went with the once-great backs.
But in a league that is addicted to offense and passing yards, Peterson has dominated. He has produced offense better than many teams can via the pass. He has piled up yardage where a good receiving corps couldn’t. He has shown that the running back is not only not dead, but in fact could be a superior form of offense for teams that don’t have the other tools needed to gain yards.
Peterson is playing in the perfect situation in Minnesota, where Christian Ponder will never be Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady — or even a serviceable, yard-producing quarterback. But that’s the case around much of the NFL, too. For every Rodgers and Brady, there’s a Ponder or a Mark Sanchez. There just aren’t enough good quarterbacks to go around.
In a league that lives on offense, that’s a death’s blow — unless, somehow, those yards can come from some other player who can pick apart defenses, find holes and crank up yardage in a way that’s hard to defend. That conversation now includes running backs.
It’s been just one magical season, and Peterson has a long way to go to continue to recover from injury and place his name among the greats. But playing as well as he has in an era that is set up in every way to discourage elite running backs, Peterson has already made his mark on the game.
Teams will not be shy about the rushing attack, and not just to balance their passing. If a player who’s even a shade of Peterson can be found, those teams can be contenders.
Peterson has swung the balance back when it comes to offense in the NFL. That’s something that could be legendary on a whole new level, well above the record books.