There were many who scoffed at Adrian Peterson’s claim at the end of last season – which he has repeated and reiterated since – that he intends to rush for 2,500 yards this season. I’ll be the first to admit that I believe it is almost impossible – with the caveat of the word “almost” because most people have learned the hard way not to underestimate what A.P. can accomplish.
But, is it a realistic goal? Should it even be a goal? The numbers would suggest not.
The closest anyone has ever come to the type of lofty standard Peterson is trying to set is O.J. Simpson in 1973. Forty years ago, Simpson became the first player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. He accomplished that in a 14-game season. By current NFL standards, in a 16-game season, he would have rushed for 2,289 yards – an average of 143 yards a game. In those 14 games, he rushed for more than 100 yards 11 times, more than 150 yards six times and 200 or more yards three times.
The Bills posted a 9-5 record that season. In those five losses, Simpson had all three of his games in which he ran for less than 100 yards (99, 79 and 55 yards) and his five lowest single-game rushing totals of the 1973 season. The simple reality is that, when his team was behind, the Bills weren’t running the ball as often because trying to get the team into position to win a game meant more than any individual accomplishment. Unless the Vikings are going to be the type of team that goes 12-4, the huge rushing days just aren’t going to be there every time – much less with the difficult 2013 schedule the Vikings are going to face.
Simpson ran for 2,003 yards in his fifth NFL season. After that, in his six subsequent seasons, he ran for more than 1,125 yards just twice. He was not alone. The other members of the 2,000-yard club found the going more difficult after they reached the monumental achievement.
Eric Dickerson set the single-season record of 2,105 yards in 1984. Dickerson set such a blistering standard early in his career that it can be argued he will never be caught in that regard. As a rookie in 1983, he ran for 1,808 yards – giving him a whopping 3,913 yards in his first two seasons – the highest two-year rushing total in the history of the game. While he still posted some eye-popping numbers in his final nine seasons, he never averaged more than 4.6 yards a carry and played in every game of the season just three times. A lot of tread was taken off the tires early in his career and he never came back to that level again.
Barry Sanders ran for 2,053 yards in 1997. At a time when many felt Emmitt Smith was the greatest running back in the league, what Sanders accomplished with a far inferior offensive line and offense in general (in this writer’s opinion, anyway) made him the greatest running back of his era. He ran for more than 1,100 yards in all 10 seasons of his NFL career and had just one season with less than 1,300 rushing yards. He hit the 2,000-yard mark in the ninth year of his NFL career. The following year, he had eight more carries (343), but ran for 562 fewer yards and the number of 40-yard runs or more dropped from 11 to four, and his per-carry average dropped by almost two yards a pop. While he clearly had gas left in the tank, his explosiveness dropped markedly after his career-defining season and that may have played into him abruptly walking away with the respect of every defensive player who tried to contain him.
Terrell Davis joined the 2,000-yard club in 1998 when he ran for 2,008 yards and helped give John Elway his first Super Bowl championship. It came in his fourth season, which was also the fourth straight year in which he had carries that increased each year (237-345-369-392). In his incredible 1998 season, he ran 392 times for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns. In the final four seasons of his career after that, he played in just 17 games, rushing 312 times for 1,194 yards and four TDs. After averaging 5.1 yards a carry in 1998, he averaged just 3.8 yards a carry in his final four NFL seasons and missed almost three times as many games as he played.
Jamal Lewis became the fifth member of the 2,000-yard club in 2003, when he ran 387 times for 2,066 yards and 14 touchdowns. It marked the third time he had rushed more than 300 times in a season and played in all 16 games. In his six remaining seasons, he ran for more than 1,100 yards just twice, played all 16 games just twice and averaged 3.6 yards a carry or less in four of his final five seasons. It would appear the massive workload Brian Billick put on his shoulders early in his career took a toll that hit him hard. He lost almost all of his explosion – he had six carries of 40 or more yards in 2003 and just five in the six seasons that followed.
Chris Johnson got his 2,000-yard club jacket in 2009 when he rushed for 2,006 yards in his second season – rushing 358 times for 2,006 yards (a 5.6-yard average) and 14 touchdowns. In the three years since, he has played all 48 games the Titans have played, but has single-season rushing totals of 1,364, 1,047 and 1,243 yards since. That season, he had seven carries of 40 or more yards and averaged 5.6 yards per carry. Since then, in the 48 games since, he has averaged 4.3 yards a carry and had just eight rushes of 40 yards or more. Whether his big 2009 season took a toll or not, the results have been less, not more.
Peterson remains unique in the world of the NFL and the great running backs of all-time. He has a rare blend of speed, power, vision and ferocity that is a mix of all the great running backs listed above, as well as legends like Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Earl Campbell. If anyone is capable of following up a monster season like he had last year, it’s Peterson. History says it won’t happen. Nobody has ever been presented the 2,000-yard club blazer twice.
If Peterson could become the first, it would be history-making. It would be unprecedented. That would be a feat unmatched in the legacy of the game. But, 2,500 yards?
To put that in perspective, if Peterson averaged 150 rushing yards every game all season long, he would fall 100 yards short. If he had four games in which he “only” ran for 100 yards, he would have to average 175 yards a game in other 12 contests. If he had four games in which he ran for “just” 75 yards, he would have to average 183 yards a game in the other 12.
The fact that Peterson has already put himself in the pantheon of the all-time elite achievements of NFL running backs has cemented a strong legacy. It’s etched in stone – or perhaps more appropriately bronze (the material used to make busts at the Pro Football Hall of Fame). In six seasons, he not only has joined the most elite running back fraternity in existence, he has the all-time single-game rushing record and came within one moderate run of the all-time single-season rushing record – which came in a season where there were questions if he would even be ready for Week 1, much less rushing with the all-time greats.
Nobody needs to make excuses for Peterson, but what he is asking of his body has never been done. Then again, the only difference between Peterson and the other running backs in the 2,000-yard club is that he and Johnson are the only ones who can get themselves in the club twice – and Johnson hasn’t shown anything resembling the ability to get back to that lofty status.
The numbers say that A.P. not only won’t hit 2,500 yards this year, but will struggle to get back to the 2,000-yard level. But Peterson has never let numbers be a deterrent and betting against him may well be a mistake, regardless of long odds. He’s beaten those already.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.