Last December 24, during an otherwise meaningless game in Washington D.C., the best RB in the NFL was writhing on the turf, the latest to fall victim to the dreaded ACL tear. As the images were replayed on your TV set, briefly interrupting the game you were actually watching, many football fans were left to wonder if Adrian Peterson would ever be able to fully recover from that crushing hit.
Despite the fact that this injury has ended some elite careers, and at the very least put a temporary hold on many other HOF-level careers, it was noted many times over the 8 months prior to the start of this NFL season that Adrian Peterson was a different cat. But no matter how different he wanted us to believe he was, history indicated that no one fully regains their previous form that quickly, and that trying to do so can only result in more harm than good. Peterson pressed on with his rehab, and despite sitting out the preseason, was ready for opening day. No one knew exactly what to expect.
On opening day, Peterson looked fantastic, averaging nearly 5 yards per carry, and scoring 2 TDs in a win over Jacksonville, leading to immediate talk of his incredible recovery. Following a poor performance in week 2, Peterson was able to shoulder the load over the next 2 games, grinding out over 20 carries and combining for nearly 200 yards, in upset victories over the 49ers and Lions.
Through 6 games, Peterson was averaging a very respectable 83 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry. Those numbers were a step below his career averages of 97 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry, but coming off an ACL, pretty darned impressive. But Peterson also hadn’t scored a TD since week 1, and talk of his return had started to fade into the background as the return-to-form of Peyton Manning took center stage.
However, since week 7, what we’ve seen is one of the greatest outbursts by a running back in the history of the game. While passing games around the league continue to thrive, Adrian Peterson has performed like the ultimate throwback, single-handedly keeping Minnesota in the playoff hunt on the strength of his legs. Peterson has 1101 yards (a 157 yard per game average) and 8 TDs during that 7 game stretch, averaging an incredible 7.24 yards per rush.
Peterson has done all of this in spite of the fact that he’s had zero help from his passing game. During that same stretch, Christian Ponder has only 962 yards passing (a 137 yard per game average), with 6 TDs and 8 INTs. And while Adrian Peterson has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the past 7, Ponder has failed to produce even 100 yards through the air on 3 separate occasions. And it’s not like this is happening against defensive slouches. 4 of Peterson’s performances have come against top 12 defenses, including 2 games against Chicago, and 1 game against Tampa, who is the stingiest team in the league against the run.
Peterson has already put up the 2nd best season of his career, and his 1600 yards is already the 50th greatest season by an RB in NFL history, with 3 games still remaining to improve upon that total. He should easily surpass his previous career high of 1760 yards, and continuing his 157 yard pace through the final 3 games would give him 2074 yards, the 2nd greatest total of all time, and only 30 yards short of Eric Dickerson’s all-time record.
On Saturday, ESPN featured a documentary on the career of Bo Jackson, who is the single-greatest “what if” athlete of all time. Less than 1 year ago, we wondered if Adrian Peterson would eventually join that same “what if” list. Instead, Peterson has rebounded against all odds to put up arguably the single most impressive rushing season in NFL history. In the process, he's likely cemented his eventual enshrinement in Canton.