What got me thinking about it was this:
Sunday, Adrian Peterson passed Tony Dorsett for ninth place on the NFL’s all-time leading rushers list. Peterson has 12,863 yards, which puts him about 500 yards short of Eric Dickerson and more than 5,000 yards shy of all-time leader Emmitt Smith.
At age 33 and averaging 3.1 yards on his previous 195 carries, the seven-time Pro Bowl pick and 2012 NFL MVP appeared to be past washed while he got shipped around from Minnesota to New Orleans to Arizona and finally to Washington. It was all pretty sad.
Then this happened.
Yes, galloping. It’s always been galloping with Peterson, who runs like an angry horse. Peterson has 587 rushing yards this season, which is fifth in the NFL, and his 4.6 yards per carry puts him right there with Todd Gurley (4.7), Ezekiel Elliott (4.7) and Christian McCaffrey (4.6). If he keeps up this pace, Peterson will have his second 1,000-yard rushing year since he was suspended in 2014.
Like Ricky Williams, Peterson is a good example of how a good bit of time away from football (self-imposed or not) can help an aging running back be good into his 30s. Also like Ricky Williams, those lost years — Peterson had a combined total of 193 carries in 2016 and 2017 — make it tricky to place Peterson, historically.
A Big Lead staff discussion revealed a consensus that, among running backs who have played during this millennium, LaDainian Tomlinson was definitely better than Peterson. But there was a strong push from Jason Lisk and Henry McKenna to put Marshall Faulk ahead of Peterson too.
Personally, I’m torn, because I love the way Adrian Peterson runs, and the kind of football it represents, but his deficiency as a pass receiver allows Faulk and Tomlinson to stack a lot of numbers against him.
Faulk played 12 seasons, and this is Peterson’s 12th year. Both players won MVP awards and both have more than 12,000 career rushing yards. Faulk was the best player on one of the most spectacular offenses ever, while Peterson … well, he spent his prime with the Minnesota Vikings.
On the other hand, Peterson has averaged a full half-yard more per carry (4.8) in his career than Faulk did and he has 103 rushing touchdowns (and counting) to Faulk’s 100.
Then again, Faulk caught 767 passes in his career for 6,875 yards and 36 touchdowns. Peterson has 261 career catches for 2,166 yards and six touchdowns.
In total yards from scrimmage, Faulk has the lead by more than 4,000 yards.
Statistically speaking, Faulk is the more productive running back, and his numbers weren’t empty calories, either. He won a Super Bowl.
Most running backs don’t run with that kind of galloping violence, and if they do, they don’t do it for long. Larry Johnson, another back who wound up in Washington late in his career, ran like that, but only for two years.
And Larry Johnson didn’t have the breakaway speed Peterson once did, anyway. Faulk set the mold for guys like Priest Holmes and Tomlinson, who rolled up massive all-purpose yardage and touchdown totals with a running style that was more about vision and patience than the explosion of a Peterson run.
To me, Peterson is the most talented running back since Barry Sanders and it annoys me to no end that, like Sanders, he spent his best years carrying mediocre NFC North teams to mediocre seasons. He’s one of a handful of men in world history who could have gone right from high school to the NFL.
Here’s Peterson as a freshman at Oklahoma in 2005.
Peterson’s career hasn’t been as good as Faulk’s. Nor has it been as good as Tomlinson’s or Jerome Bettis’ or Curtis Martin’s. He’s obviously a Hall of Fame player, but even from the last 18 years, there are guys who have more rushing yards and team achievements.
So I asked the Big Lead staff once again. I asked who they would take if they got to have any running back from the last 18 years, at his best, for one season.
I heard Faulk, and I heard Tomlinson, on the grounds that Peterson’s poor receiving skills make him less useful, and I can’t disagree.
Best as I can tell, and as much as I’d like to say otherwise, Adrian Peterson is the third-best running back of his generation, and considering that he and Faulk never really overlapped, he is the second-best back over the entirety of the time that he has been in the NFL.