EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Two seasons ago, a meeting between Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson, two of the NFL’s premier running backs, would have been a highlight on the NFL’s weekly schedule.
Sunday’s game, with Johnson’s Tennessee Titans visiting Peterson’s Minnesota Vikings, would have been billed as a matchup involving perhaps the game’s biggest breakaway threat in the speedy Johnson and the best combination of power and elusiveness in Peterson.
The two have been linked since Johnson debuted in 2008 with a 1,228-yard rookie season. Peterson, a year earlier had rushed for 1,341 yards as a rookie. The yards piled up until both signed massive contracts before the start of the 2011 season, making them the two highest-paid running backs in the NFL.
Now, with Peterson trying to get back to top form following major knee surgery and Johnson in the midst of his worst NFL season, Sunday’s game lacks some of the appeal it might have held not long ago. But perhaps Peterson and Johnson are just getting ready for the showdown. Both are coming off their best performances of the season last weekend.
Johnson ran 25 times for 141 yards against Houston’s top-ranked run defense in a 38-14 Tennessee loss.
“He looked like the Chris Johnson that we’re all familiar with,” Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said. “That’s a good Texans run defense that he was running against. He had a good day, so we know we’re going to have to come ready to play and play some good run defense against their offense.”
Peterson, nine months removed from surgery to repair two torn knee ligaments, had 102 yards on 21 carries in a 20-13 win at Detroit.
“I’ve always been a fan of the way he runs the football, being a line coach,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said of Peterson. “You get excited to watch the energy, the way he hits the hole. I’d never know he was hurt last year. It’s amazing.”
Though Johnson has called himself the best back in the league, Peterson has avoided comparisons and says he doesn’t pay close attention to the league’s other top runners. When asked about this week’s matchup against Johnson, Peterson didn’t want to elaborate, saying only, “He is pretty good,” when referring to his counterpart.
“That’s for (the media) to do,” Peterson said. “I feel like I’m the best. I practice to be the best. So, focusing on other guys is not going to help me get better.”
Peterson’s teammates, who face him in practice every day, are backing up his claim.
“No comparison,” Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford said. “You ask me, there’s no back in this league, to me personally, that you can compare to Adrian. He’s a different guy. Every back has their good and bad, and Chris Johnson he’s a great back, but to compare him to AD? There’s just no comparison to me.”
Last season, the link between the two grew stronger when they sought and received record-breaking contracts. First came Johnson, Tennessee’s 24th overall selection in the 2008 draft, who became just the sixth player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in one year when he had 2,006 in his second season. He signed a four-year, $53 million contract extension a week before the 2011 season began, getting a reported $30 million guaranteed.
Peterson, the seventh overall selection in the 2007 draft who had set a single-game rushing record with 296 yards against San Diego in his rookie year, took notice of the new pay standard but said he wasn’t focused on Johnson’s contract or any comparisons as he waited for his own deal. However, a week later, one day before Minnesota’s season opener, Peterson signed a seven-year, $100 million contract that included $36 million guaranteed.
Sunday’s game now features two running backs who have had very difference results since signing those deals.
Peterson fell short of 1,000 yards for the first time in his career last year after he missed four games due to ankle and knee injuries. But he rehabbed with his trademark tenacity and has put himself back among the league’s top rushers. After surpassing 100 yards last week for the first time, he’s now ranked 10th in the league with 332.
“He looked more like the Adrian of old than at any point in this young season,” Frazier said of Peterson’s game last week. “He had some runs that showed the strength, the power, the elusiveness that we’ve seen in the past. It was just great to see. There was no hitch anywhere. He looked good.”
Most of Johnson’s season rushing total came in last week’s game. He ranks 25th in the league with 186 yards, averaging a career-low 3.2 per carry.
Munchak believes Johnson’s low total this season has come from playing behind in several games and not having the opportunity to establish the running game. His statistics really haven’t been the same since signing the big contract.
“Last year was the first time we kind of stubbed our toe on it a little bit,” Munchak said of Johnson’s 2011 season in which he had a career-low 1,047 yards after getting his big payday. “I think with 2,000, and the way he started that came so easy; I think those first three years, people don’t expect that type of numbers from him when he first came into the league.
“Then he goes for 2,000 in his (second) year and expectations just got large. We still feel he’s a back that can do exactly what you said, that 1,300 to 1,500 should be where he should be.”
And if Peterson and Johnson can both get back to that level, maybe the comparisons will return.