EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew’s common bond as star running backs have allowed the two to develop a friendship over the years.
The two were keeping a close eye on the other’s situation this offseason as Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings’ star back, was attempting a comeback from major knee surgery and Jones-Drew, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ league-leading rusher, was embroiled in a nasty contract dispute.
The two didn’t talk during Jones-Drew’s 38-day holdout, but each was aware of the latest happenings with the other. As workhorse running backs in what has become a passing league, they are fighting to show offenses can still be built around a running game.
“We have to stick together because everybody’s trying to devalue us or say we’re not this or we’re not that, which is pretty funny,” Jones-Drew said this week.
With Peterson’s Vikings hosting Jones-Drew’s Jaguars in Sunday’s regular-season opener, both of the backs are expected to get limited carries. Peterson’s return is still in question as he recovers from surgery, and Jones-Drew is working into a new offense with Jacksonville after ending his holdout Sunday.
With the two situations, Peterson, a four-time Pro Bowl pick in five NFL seasons, and Jones-Drew, a three-time selection in six seasons, Sunday could be a missed opportunity for the Vikings and Jaguars to showcase two of the league’s best backs and top rushing offenses. Even if Peterson is active, Toby Gerhart is expected to get the majority of the carries for Minnesota. Jacksonville coach Mike Mularkey said Rashad Jennings will start for the Jaguars with Jones-Drew spelling him for an occasional series and on third downs.
On the other side of the ball, neither team is expecting its opponent’s star back to be hindered.
“We’re preparing for him to play,” Mularkey said simply about Peterson’s status.
As for the Vikings’ defense and the reports of Jones-Drew being limited to a third-down role?
“He’s a third-down back? Yeah, right,” Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen said. “I expect to see him. Maybe he won’t start, but the second play he’ll probably be in.”
Gerhart and Jennings have had success of their own, but Peterson and Jones-Drew have been the faces of their respective teams for several years.
Even with Peterson limited to 12 games last season, the Vikings finished fourth in the league in rushing, though Peterson was stopped short of 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. Jones-Drew led the league in rushing with 1,606 yards, and Jacksonville finished 12th in the NFL in team rushing yards.
“Look at Jones-Drew, he was their whole offense last year,” Peterson said. “So, without him, the Jaguars would have been terrible, just to be honest. So, I feel like once he gets back into the rhythm, he’s going to get his load in. God willing, I’ll get mine as well.”
Jones-Drew is fighting to be paid like one of the league’s top rushers, such as Peterson, who signed a running back record $100 million deal before last season. Jones-Drew has heard the talk of the NFL turning into a passing league and teams using running back-by-committee approaches to devalue the position.
He’s simply disagrees after leading the league with 344 carries last year.
“They pick the stats that help them identify that point,” Jones-Drew said. “I mean, there are some very decent stats that do that. For me, I think at the end of the day, being a player and understanding the style of this league, balance is what helps that and wins games.”
Peterson and Jones-Drew can’t wait to get back on the field to prove elite running backs are still commodities in the NFL. Sadly, it might not come when their two teams are facing each other.
“It is what it is,” Peterson said. “Totally different situations, unfortunately. I hope to see him out there. He’s a good friend of mine. I love his game. I love watching him play. To me he’s one of the better backs in the league. Hopefully we both get some time.”
Allen has seen firsthand what Peterson can bring to a team, and though Minnesota’s defense consistently ranks as one of the league’s better units against the run, he agrees with Jones-Drew and knows stopping the run is still key.
“As much as the perception has changed, and people pass the ball more and they use the intermediate and checkdown passes as part of the run game, football is still, if a team can run the ball on you, it’s demoralizing and it just takes the wind right out of your sails,” Allen said.
Which is just what Peterson and Jones-Drew are hoping to do as soon as possible. In the meantime, Gerhart and Jennings will take the lead in the show on Sunday.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of things showcased in this game,” Jones-Drew said. “We don’t know who’s going to play what or how much, but who knows? At the end of the day, we might see a whole bunch of stuff that we never thought we would see. Let’s just wait till the game kind of plays out and see how it goes.”