Adrian Peterson Never Made Sense

When he was at his best, Adrian Peterson made everything we know about football seem up for grabs. It couldn't last forever, but it will endure.
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Even by the standards of interminable Sunday pregame shows, the segment was surreal. This was Week 2 of the 2009 season, and ESPN talking head Adam Schefter stood next to a graphic of the Minnesota Vikings’ schedule, going opponent by opponent and discussing rushing defenses. The week before, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson had rushed for 180 yards against the Cleveland Browns, and now Schefter, who is normally clinically reserved, was making an earnest if wide-eyed case that if Peterson kept that pace up for 15 more games, he had a shot at a 3,000-yard season. It would be difficult, Schefter acknowledged; given that such a season would have Peterson beating the single-season rushing record by 900 yards, that made sense. But who was Schefter to rule it out?

It was an absurd case to make on national television, obviously, but the magic of Adrian Peterson, at his zenith, was that it didn’t quite feel like it in the moment. Such was the feeling watching Peterson run when he was just two years into his NFL career and already the holder of the single-game rushing record, a Rookie of the Year award, and a 1,700-yard season. We were all sucked in by what Schefter was actually trying to express: the sense of infinite possibility generated by maybe two or three athletes per decade, the feeling that the supposed ceiling for a certain type of player doing a certain thing was about to be reduced to rubble. Why not 3,000 yards? We laughed at the idea but we did it uneasily, silently running the calculations in our heads.

To watch Peterson run on those Vikings teams was to realize that context and classification were structures designed for players other than him. He had the elongated glide of a one-cut runner, until he decided to make three, or four. He started deep in the backfield to build the head of steam needed by backs who charitably get called “north-south guys,” but also he could stop, change direction, and accelerate again within the span of a few steps. He’d spin or juke, unless he ran through you; if he was allowed just three or four uninterrupted steps in the same direction, he was gone. Fans always have some reduced, smaller goal they cheer for in a game to make the cosmic task of winning seem manageable, some minute thing they believe that, if accomplished, will allow the rest to fall into place. This was ours: just let Adrian have three steps.

To call him a Jim Brown who could bounce like LaDainian Tomlinson sounds hyperbolic, and that’s because the experience of watching him was hyperbolic. None of it ever made any sense. Take Peterson’s signature game, which will always be at home against the Chargers in 2007, just his eighth game as a pro. He finished the first half with a quiet 43 yards. He finished the game with 296. He didn’t have need for things like rhythm or consistency or even a gameplan; you didn’t have to “get Adrian going.” Whatever sliver of time or space was given to him, he had this way of violently stretching it into whatever shape he pleased. He was going to flirt with 300 yards and seize the record that day, no matter what. If he only had a half to do it, then okay.

For so much of his time with the Vikings, all he got were slivers. He worked for mediocre coaches who never worked again, with putrid quarterbacks who never started elsewhere and who couldn’t even hold down the the basic warm-body responsibilities needed to prevent opposing defenses from running out absurd nine-man fronts geared entirely around preventing Peterson from getting those three steps.

Earlier this month, the Vikings announced that after nine seasons with team, Adrian Peterson would not have the option picked up on his contract. Here are the quarterbacks he shared a backfield with during these years: Tarvaris Jackson, Kelly Holcomb, Brooks Bollinger, Gus Frerotte, end-stage Brett Favre, Joe Webb, post-useful Donovan McNabb, Christian Ponder, Matt Cassell, Josh Freeman, Teddy Bridgewater, and Shaun Hill. In a way this was his own doing, because any team can win enough games purely by handing the ball to Adrian Peterson so as to never quite be in position to draft the quarterback he desperately deserved.

Favre provided the one instance of above-average quarterback play during that stretch, in that same season of Adam Schefter’s televised fever dream. It led to the one true game of consequence of Peterson’s career, the 2010 NFC Championship Game. The Vikings leaned on him the entire way and he delivered 122 yards and 3 scores; it looked to be enough until Favre threw one of the costliest interceptions in modern memory, once again doing what Favre had made a long and storied career out of doing, which was beating the Vikings.

Perhaps out of necessity, appreciating Adrian Peterson was never about games of consequence. The lack of such games made the moments when he would demand new ceilings all the more impressive, because those moments were his alone. When he tore his ACL in a meaningless game during a 3-9 season, Peterson furiously rehabbed to be ready to run the ball for another mediocre team by opening day in 2012, just nine months later. This in itself felt like a feat. That he turned in the second-highest single-season rushing total of all time and was named MVP that season was—well, it fit. It was the sort of thing Adrian Peterson did.

He looks “done,” now, in terms of being what he’s been. He’s on the wrong side of thirty and is coming off another major injury, and he has taken 2,400 carries worth of hits. But “done” might also be one more ill-fitting category for him. He was done after the ACL tear in 2011, too, and was done after the season-long suspension he received for taking a wooden switch to his child, an episode that invariably makes him a difficult figure to support beyond a basic appreciation of his play. “Done” might be for other players.

It will feel strange to watch a diminished version of Adrian Peterson get eight carries a game for a contender he signs with to chase a ring, if that’s what happens. Whatever comes, wherever he goes, Peterson unquestionably belongs on the short list of athletes who turned otherwise intelligent people into fools—Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Randy Moss. He was a player who took hold of our collective sense of possibility and expectation and showed us that we weren’t dreaming nearly big enough.

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