Before winning the NFL MVP award Saturday night, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson spent two weeks making the rounds with TV and radio outlets that wanted to get the 2,000-yard rusher on air.
The media blitz started last week in Hawaii at the Pro Bowl and continued this week in New Orleans, site of Saturday night’s NFL awards ceremony. Inevitably, the discussion always came around to Peterson’s qualifications for the MVP award. The Vikings superstar would respond, as he has for more than a month, that he deserved to win the honor for the first time in his six-year career.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, Peterson’s main competition for the award who finished second Saturday, playfully ribbed Peterson in Hawaii, saying the running back was lobbying for the MVP. In reality, Manning probably figured he simply didn’t need to promote himself.
When it comes to the MVP, quarterbacks have long held a built-in advantage: inertia. Before Peterson broke through Saturday night by getting 30 1/2 votes to Manning’s 19 1/2, QBs had won five straight and 10 of the past 12 MVPs.
So it would take something incomprehensible — like, well, maybe a running back racking up 2,097 rushing yards less than a year after ACL surgery and leading a passing-challenged team from a 3-13 record to the playoffs — to break the pattern, and that’s exactly what Peterson delivered.
He finished with the second-highest, single-season rushing total in NFL history, falling just eight yards short of Eric Dickerson’s record. It was the kind of season that had Peterson heading to the podium repeatedly Saturday night — Offensive Player of the Year, NFL.com Fantasy Player of the Year, FedEx Ground Player of the Year . . . Peterson tested that ACL time and again on the way up the stairs.
The 27-year-old didn’t just top the rest of the NFL’s rushers by more than 500 yards, he bettered his own best season – back then with the ACL God gave him — by more than 300 yards. In a QB-driven league, Peterson had a different idea of how to power an offense, but he knew even before he fell short of Dickerson’s record that he’d have to do some educating off the field to get folks to fully appreciate what he’d accomplished on it.
“Quarterbacks kind of get a little leeway at times,” Peterson said in December. “But the MVP goes to the best player. You’ve got to be able to evaluate different situations — who’s been performing the best — not just narrow it down to quarterbacks. That’s not right. If that’s the case, then you should make it a quarterback-only award.”
Manning, who made an incredible comeback himself this season, returning from multiple neck surgeries, is the NFL’s only four-time MVP. He transformed Denver’s offense from Tebow Time to the pass-first standard and led his team to the best regular-season record in the AFC. He was second in the NFL with a 105.8 quarterback rating, tied for first in completion rate at 68.6 percent and was third with 37 touchdown passes.
Good numbers for sure — in the end Comeback Player of the Year numbers only — but Peterson’s season was historic while also bucking history by proving games can still be won with legs instead of arms.
It’s been a while since anyone acknowledged that. The last running back MVP was LaDanian Tomlinson in 2006. He had 2,323 yards from scrimmage and scored a single-season record 31 touchdowns. The year before, Shaun Alexander needed a then-record 28 touchdowns to win. Marshall Faulk, the 2000 winner, also had established the single-season touchdown mark at the time, going for 2,189 total yards and 81 receptions.
In NFL history, only three players have ever won the award at a position other than quarterback and running back: Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page in 1971, Washington Redskins kicker Mark Moseley in 1982 (really?) and New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986. Since Taylor won, 20 quarterbacks have claimed at least a share of the MVP award, and running backs have been winning less and less.
Peterson broke through while all three of the quarterbacks to win the previous seven MVPs by QBs — Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Manning — also had MVP-caliber seasons, but it’s fair to say Peterson topping 2,000 yards alone didn’t do the trick. Of the six previous 2,000-yard rushers, only three earned at least a share of the MVP award: Barry Sanders (2,053 yards in 1997), Terrell Davis (2,008 in 1998) and O.J. Simpson (2,003 in 1973). Even Dickerson was denied the honor in his record-breaking season, with the award going to Miami Dolphins QB Dan Marino.
“God willing, next year I’ll be accepting this award again so I can have two or three like Peyton,” Peterson joked Saturday night on the NFL honors show.
Manning has twice earned the award over a 2,000-yard rusher (Jamal Lewis in 2003 and Chris Johnson in 2009). So it was time to realize that when a handful of other quarterbacks had similar seasons to his and when Peterson stood so singularly among running backs, history didn’t have to repeat itself again and again and again.
This season was Peterson’s season, and for once it didn’t belong to the quarterback. If that bothers you, just wait 12 months because it’ll probably take 3,000 yards by a running back — Peterson or otherwise — to keep the award away from a QB again.