Adults don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but I believe in Adrian Peterson on a football field with the ball in his hand.
When I first saw Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma, he reminded me of Jim Brown. Their frames appear as if they have bones constructed of Adamantium. Both possess a running style that expresses indomitable will.
There are differences on film. There’s an energy to Peterson’s gait that’s more urgent. On the field, Peterson vibrates like a toy soldier that has been wound up all the way, and it spasms to the point of near-explosion. Early in his career, he attacked defenses like a Hell Horse released from an ocean of fire.
There’s still liquid fire roiling from his body when the ball is in his hands, but that reckless abandon in Peterson’s game has been refined just enough to keep him from imploding. Maturity does that for a player. It’s also a credit to Peterson that he didn’t ignore coaching–many great physical talents go their own way at the expense of maximizing their potential.
Peterson has more proven skills than Brown. It doesn’t mean Brown couldn’t do these things, but I’m in the business of seeking proof on film rather than faith in a player’s legend.
Peterson can execute a greater variety of cuts than Brown. There’s an overall greater library of moves to avoid or deflect hits from defenders. He might not have Brown’s brute force, but Peterson’s runs often display more strategic skill with setting up defenders.
The Vikings runner inspired a phrase I often use to describe cuts at full speed at the exit-point of the initial hole that wipes out the pursuit angles of defenders at the second and third levels: Change the axis of pursuit. Other great runners before Peterson had this skill, but few do it as well.
In addition to his moves, Peterson earns the nod over Brown for his pass protection and ball security. The Vikings runner was a fumbling machine early in his career, but he has fixed this near-fatal flaw dramatically. Peterson had 20 fumbles during his first three season and has had 11 over the past five. He’s averaging one fumble every 73 attempts, much better than Brown, Dickerson and Campbell, and much closer to that of Smith (1 in 83) and Lynch (84).
Peterson matches Brown’s legend as the guy you give the ball and expect a positive outcome even when the defense knows its coming and has the numbers advantage in the box. Peterson’s quality of offensive line play wasn’t as consistently great as Brown’s and he still dominates. It’s another reason Peterson earns a slight edge.
While Brown never suffered a major injury and that invulnerability factor is one of the reasons why many football writers will take the Cleveland back, I prefer players that have encountered adversity and overcame it. Peterson’s 2000-yard rushing season month after tearing his ACL is one of the most amazing feats I’ve seen in football.
The other was Gale Sayers’ overcoming the medieval hack job that was knee surgery and winning the NFL’s rushing title the following year. I saw a recent interview of Sayers where he was asked about his shortened career. The anger, sadness, and defiance in his response has me reconsidering Sayers for my team as a return specialist. Anyone who is still this emotional about wishing he could show the world the fullest extent of his greatness needs to see the field in the most pivotal moment in human history.
Genetically, Peterson had the knee of a newborn baby and he had the medical advancements Sayers lacked. Still, the work involved for Peterson to rehab the injury and return to a form capable of besting his career-highs in yards from scrimmage season (by 217 yards), touches (388), and yards per carry (6) deserves all the glory he received.
Adults don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but I believe in Adrian Peterson on a football field. Peterson’s skill as a pure runner is close enough to Brown that his added versatility puts him ahead of the Cleveland runner–and on any given day, the next player on my list. It’s not enough to earn the starting job. At this point it’s so close, it’s possible that Peterson earns the job during the 90-day training camp.
For now, he’ll be my kick returner. Peterson averages 25 yards per return. Devin Hester has 250 more returns in his career with a 24.8 yards per return average and 5 career touchdowns. Still, I’m confident that Peterson will get our team field position and he’s a greater asset on special teams than Hester when he can see time in the backfield.
It may be too early for some to put Peterson on the same level as Jim Brown, but I’m there.
What is the RSP Writers Project (RSPWP)?
The RSP Writers Project is a goodwill community effort among writers that is designed to spur conversation about the game. Here’s the back story for this year’s project, the directory of participating writer-built teams, and the other backs Waldman considered for his team.