Simple questions often produce complicated answers. Thanks to some subjective criteria and a loaded field, this one is no different … but just how good is Adrian Peterson?
YOU know Adrian Peterson. You watch him multiple times a year and are inundated with commercials and highlight reels of him. I don’t need to set the mood with a meandering preamble about just how awesome he is, so I’ll start off instead with some relevant charts.
Here is where Peterson ranks historically in yards-per-attempt among all running backs with at least 900 carries*:
Other notables in the top-25 were LeSean McCoy (13), Tiki Barber (18), Hugh McElhenny (19), O.J. Simpson (20), Fred Taylor (22), Terrell Davis (23), and Priest Holmes (25). Hall-of-Famers in the top-100 included Steve Van Buren (42), Eric Dickerson (44), Jim Taylor (45), Ollie Matson (46), Walter Payton (49), Tony Dorsett (54), Marshall Faulk (56), John Henry Johnson (57), Earl Campbell (63), Larry Csonka (72), Leroy Kelly (82), Thurman Thomas (85), and Emmitt Smith (94). Franco Harris, Marcus Allen, and Curtis Martin just barely crossed the four-yard threshold.
Here’s where “All Day” already falls in terms of raw yardage and touchdowns:
Phew. There were good players, there were All-Stars, there were legends … and then there was Jim Brown.
As you can see, one more (healthy) Adrian Peterson-esque season will vault him into lofty territory. He needs only 1,238 yards this year to move him past Riggins into 16th on the yardage chart, and racking up 1,581 yards to surpass Taylor certainly isn’t out of the question. He could very easily be number eight on that list by the end of the 2015 regular season while still being three months away from turning 31. Peterson is almost certain to move into the top-ten in touchdowns next season, and he could very realistically usurp Brown before 2016; the six-time All-Pro has still never posted anything less than a double-digit score season**.
Raw totals are undoubtedly prestigious, but they are also biased towards “compilers” — players who hang on long after their peak and rack up relatively inconsequential numbers. So I devised a way to measure the most dominant runners of their respective eras by finding the leading rusher over every given ten-year stretch since Brown entered the league, culminating with Peterson’s arrival. (Because of this, the last three slots are less than ten years.)
|Years||Leader||Total Yards||Next Best||Total Yards|
|1957-1966||Jim Brown (1)||12312||Jim Taylor||8207|
|1958-1967||Jim Brown (2)||11370||Jim Taylor||8597|
|1959-1968||Jim Brown (3)||9843||Jim Taylor||8350|
|1960-1969||Jim Brown (4)||8514||Jim Taylor||7898|
|1961-1970||Jim Brown (5)||7257||Jim Taylor||6797|
|1962-1971||Leroy Kelly (1)||6074||Jim Brown||5849|
|1963-1972||Leroy Kelly (2)||6885||Ken Willard||5564|
|1964-1973||Leroy Kelly (3)||7274||Ken Willard||5930|
|1965-1974||Leroy Kelly (4)||7262||O.J. Simpson||6306|
|1966-1975||O.J. Simpson (1)||8123||Leroy Kelly||7123|
|1967-1976||O.J. Simpson (2)||9626||Larry Csonka||6469|
|1968-1977||O.J. Simpson (3)||10183||Larry Csonka||6933|
|1969-1978||O.J. Simpson (4)||10776||Franco Harris||7377|
|1970-1979||O.J. Simpson (5)||10539||Franco Harris||8563|
|1971-1980||O.J. Simpson (6)||10051||Franco Harris||9352|
|1972-1981||Franco Harris (1)||10339||Walter Payton||9608|
|1973-1982||Walter Payton (1)||10204||Franco Harris||9888|
|1974-1983||Walter Payton (2)||11625||Franco Harris||10197|
|1975-1984||Walter Payton (3)||13309||Tony Dorsett||9525|
|1976-1985||Walter Payton (4)||14181||Tony Dorsett||10832|
|1977-1986||Walter Payton (5)||14124||Tony Dorsett||11580|
|1978-1987||Walter Payton (6)||12805||Tony Dorsett||11029|
|1979-1988||Walter Payton (7)||11410||Tony Dorsett||10407|
|1980-1989||Eric Dickerson (1)||11226||Walter Payton||9800|
|1981-1990||Eric Dickerson (2)||11903||Walter Payton||8340|
|1982-1991||Eric Dickerson (3)||12439||Marcus Allen||8244|
|1983-1992||Eric Dickerson (4)||13168||Roger Craig||8070|
|1984-1993||Eric Dickerson (5)||11451||Thurman Thomas||7631|
|1985-1994||Eric Dickerson (6)||9346||Thurman Thomas||8724|
|1986-1995||Barry Sanders (1)||10172||Thurman Thomas||9729|
|1987-1996||Barry Sanders (2)||11725||Thurman Thomas||10762|
|1988-1997||Barry Sanders (3)||13778||Thurman Thomas||11405|
|1989-1998||Barry Sanders (4)||15269||Emmitt Smith||12556|
|1990-1999||Emmitt Smith (1)||13963||Barry Sanders||13799|
|1991-2000||Emmitt Smith (2)||14229||Barry Sanders||12495|
|1992-2001||Emmitt Smith (3)||13687||Barry Sanders||10947|
|1993-2002||Emmitt Smith (4)||12949||Jerome Bettis||11542|
|1994-2003||Emmitt Smith (5)||11719||Curtis Martin||11669|
|1995-2004||Curtis Martin (1)||13366||Emmitt Smith||11172|
|1996-2005||Curtis Martin (2)||12614||Jerome Bettis||10571|
|1997-2006||Curtis Martin (3)||11462||Corey Dillon||11241|
|1998-2007||Edgerrin James (1)||11607||Fred Taylor||10715|
|1999-2008||Edgerrin James (2)||12121||LaDainian Tomlinson||11760|
|2000-2009||LaDainian Tomlinson (1)||12490||Edgerrin James||10693|
|2001-2010||LaDainian Tomlinson (2)||13404||Clinton Portis||9923|
|2002-2011||LaDainian Tomlinson (3)||12448||Clinton Portis||9923|
|2003-2012||LaDainian Tomlinson (4)||10765||Steven Jackson||10135|
|2004-2013||Steven Jackson (1)||10678||Adrian Peterson||10115|
|2005-2013||Adrian Peterson||10115||Steven Jackson||10005|
|2006-2013||Adrian Peterson||10115||Frank Gore||9359|
|2007-2013||Adrian Peterson||10115||Chris Johnson||7965|
Note that the NFL didn’t move to its current 16-game format until 1978, so Brown, Kelly, and Simpson essentially lost an entire season’s worth of games over an eight-year span when posting those totals.
What should be immediately apparent is that almost every leader on this list was not just an elite player in his own generation — he was an all-time great. The exceptions are Kelly, who played in the weakest rushing era of the group but was still inducted into the Hall of Fame (albeit 20 years after his retirement), Jackson, who only made the list once because he had three seasons’ worth of numbers that Peterson was still in Oklahoma for, and James, a really damn good running back that I will write about more next week. Tomlinson isn’t a Hall-of-Famer as of the printing of this piece, but he will be on the first ballot in 2017.
The history on this chart practically jumps off the page. You can see when the young cats were coming to steal the crown from the aging lions in winter — Kelly-to-Simpson, Payton-to-Simpson, Tomlinson-to-Peterson — and it’s clear that not all eras were created equal. Kelly and Martin didn’t have a Dorsett or Thurman Thomas nipping at their heels for most of their primes, while the Sanders-Smith duo of the ‘90s could have gone either way.
So where does Peterson fit into that? He only has seven seasons under his belt, but he will certainly lead the 2005-2014 decade after its conclusion (unless Frank Gore outpaces him by 149 yards) and likely for several years after that. Given the volatility of the position, the former Sooner has probably been the reputed best tailback in the NFL since 2008, and possibly even before that; he finished just 133 yards behind league-leader Tomlinson as a rookie (on 77 less carries) and ran for a record 296 yards on San Diego’s fifth-ranked defense in his eighth professional game. It’s so rare for any player to remain so dominant and so well acclaimed, especially at a skill position that’s trending downward in value like an M. Night Shyamalan script.
Top-ten lists of halfbacks often vary depending on how the ballot-caster values yards, touchdowns, durability, and primes — the latter two making Terrell Davis a particularly complex case — but I think it is fair to say that any such group must include the names Brown, Payton, Sanders, Smith, Simpson, and Tomlinson. That’s a rock-solid six, and Peterson should already be a lock in the top-ten as well. The question becomes if Peterson already has a better track record than any of those guys, and if not, what he still needs to accomplish in the latter portion of his career to carve his face onto Mount Rushmore.
For me, I don’t need to see another double digit-touchdown, ~1,300-yard season from All Day to tell me what I already believe to be true. As a guy who was seven-years-old when Sanders retired, Peterson is the best ball-carrier I have seen with my own eyes … while actually comprehending what I was watching. His 2012 season may be the best in history after Simpson’s ’73 campaign, and he’s put up similar numbers to Tomlinson at this point in his career while mostly playing with considerable less talent.
I have little interest in placing a ranking on a career that appears to have plenty left in the tank, but being definitively in my top-seven before his 30th birthday is pretty goddamn impressive.
* If this number seems arbitrary … well, that’s because it is. Setting the bar at 1,000 would have excluded Sayers, a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, and that just felt wrong.
** Peterson and Tomlinson are the only players in NFL history to record double-digit rushing touchdowns in each of their first seven seasons.
Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.