EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — In the NFL, some milestones and records mean more than others.
Whether it’s Tom Brady’s 50 passing touchdowns in 2007 or Brett Favre’s 297 consecutive starts, a few numbers simply captivate football fans.
Last year, 5,000 passing yards was the milestone of the moment, but three players getting there in the same season knocked off the shine. One hundred receptions in a season is no longer worth a headline on the sports page. Jerry Rice’s stable of receiving records will dwindle by one if Detroit’s Calvin Johnson tops 1,848 yards in the final two games. Even Michael Strahan’s single-season sacks record is getting another test.
Nearly every major single-season and career record in the NFL has been established since the turn of the century, except one: Eric Dickerson’s rushing record has stood for 28 years.
Dickerson’s 2,105 yards with the 1984 Los Angeles Rams remains the statistical standard for every other special season by a running back. Some have challenged it, but Dickerson’s mark has stood the test of time. Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis came the closest, 39 yards shy with 2,066 in 2003. Tennessee Titans speed demon Chris Johnson was the most recent of the six players, including Dickerson, to hit 2,000 yards. He had 2,006 in 2009.
“It was a situation where you rush for 2,000, you never know you’re going to do it until you look up and see you have a chance to do it,” Johnson said this week. “Once you know you have a chance to do it and you’re close to it, it seems like you’re in a different kind of zone. You feel like you can’t be stopped, and you just continue to make plays and bust out big runs.”
Yet, Dickerson’s record remains, and 2,000 yards is still rare air. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, however, seems better equipped than recent challengers to not only knock down 2,000 but also Dickerson’s elusive record. For Peterson, less than a year removed from ACL and MCL surgery last Dec. 30, it’s come down to this: 188 yards to 2,000 and 293 to match Dickerson.
Fifty-one weeks after a knee injury that ends some careers and significantly alters most others, this is not where anyone thought Peterson would be with two games left on the schedule. Now that he’s on the cusp, naysayers have been pushed aside like so many would-be tacklers.
“You can put me on that list of guys that doubted if he’ll be at full strength this year,” said Terrell Davis, who reached 2,008 yards for the 1998 Denver Broncos. “If he didn’t have the ACL and he had this kind of year, we would still be marveling at what he’s doing. But the fact that you throw in there here’s a guy that tore his ACL in December of last year and he’s doing this this year, all you can do is just chuckle. All you can do is say ‘I don’t believe what’s happening here.’
“I hear the guy’s not human.”
Certainty amid doubt
Davis had reason to be cynical about Peterson’s chances at even an average year. Following his MVP-winning 2,000-yard season, Davis tore the ACL and MCL ligaments in his right knee, the same injury that fell Peterson. Davis, the vital cog who combined with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway to help Denver win back-to-back Super Bowls, was never the same after his injury. Following a longer recovery time than Peterson endured, Davis returned for the next season, but he never again topped 1,000 yards. He played only 17 more NFL games and was finished after the 2001 season.
So when Peterson set a goal of returning for the first regular-season game, Davis watched from afar and shook his head. When Peterson said in training camp he felt ready to return for Week 1, Davis knew Peterson would feel that way but that there would be incremental – not exponential — progress.
“More and more you go, the healthier you get and you look back on it and say, ‘Wow.’ ” Davis said. “Really, it takes another year after you’ve had that ACL for most players. That was the norm. It was a year after you had an ACL and you were back, after you played a year the previous year that you felt like ‘I’m back.’ And watching him play and not even having any effects of a torn ACL is, like, ‘Really?’ “
Peterson, though, never talked like that, never thought like that, never rehabbed with a doubt in his mind. He had surgery a week after the injury, and a week after that had set the timetable for his intensive rehab process. As self-motivated as any player in the league, he was ready to meet his goals.
Somehow Peterson, who’s previous season high was 1,760 rushing yards in his second year, has looked better than ever in his sixth. He says he’s more patient, even though he was anything but in his recovery and even though a team-record eight straight games with more than 100 yards would seem to identify a man in a rush. He’s surpassed 200 yards in two of the past three games, and his speed is back to pre-injury levels. Peterson has seven runs of at least 50 yards, equaling a single-season record set by Barry Sanders, another member of the 2,000-yard club (2,053 in 1997).
“You’ve got to have one believer,” Peterson said. “There are many (doubters) out there, but I really believed that I was going to be able to come back and be better than I was before. I’m not surprised.”
Dickerson, dead ahead
Growing up in Texas, Peterson has studied the career of Dickerson, another Lone Star stater who set this benchmark just a few months before Peterson was born.
Dickerson is from Sealy, Texas, and went on to star at Southern Methodist University before he became the second overall pick in the 1983 draft. Peterson is from Palestine, Texas, and played for Oklahoma before the Vikings drafted him seventh overall in 2007.
“Even in high school, I got a lot of comparisons to Eric Dickerson,” Peterson said. “I was telling some guys yesterday that I wanted (No.) 29 and my dad wanted me to wear 29, too, because of Eric Dickerson. But they didn’t have that number. Just watching him, watching his style, he’s kind of an upright, tall back, fast, strong, kind of has some of the same qualities in a back as far as a back, but he’s a guy I liked watching when I was growing up.”
And he liked watching how his numbers stacked up against Dickerson’s upon entering the NFL. Peterson has said he’s always thought about setting records and that Dickerson’s single-season mark and Emmitt Smith’s career rushing record as two of his goals.
Now that he’s closing in on Dickerson, though, there’s a second – more important – goal: winning the next two games and leading what was a 3-13 team last year into the playoffs with a 10-6 mark. To do that, he’ll need to get his numbers within the framework of what’s best for his team, but what’s best for the hard-of-passing Vikings is plenty of Peterson. Leave sharing carries and throwing on two downs out of three to the rest of the league – the Vikings are going to the playoffs only if Peterson continues to take them there, probably with Dickerson’s record in hand.
“Most guys are specialists now,” Davis said. “They’re not built to go three downs and you have this two-back rotation and sometimes a three-back rotation. Guys aren’t getting the workload like they used to. But he is that. When you think of a guy who’s an every-down back, Adrian Peterson’s that guy. And he’s a guy that, he’s the old bell cow, he’s the old guy that you put your team on his shoulders and he’ll carry you.”
A record worth keeping
Dickerson appreciates the comparisons to Peterson, but that doesn’t mean he’s pulling for Peterson to get to 2,106.
Dickerson is a second-ballot Hall of Famer and seventh all-time with 13,259 rushing yards. His place in NFL history is secure, but this is one room in that place he doesn’t want to vacate.
“I mean, if a guy says that, they’d be lying,” Dickerson said this week in an interview on Yahoo! Sports Radio. “They aren’t telling the truth. Like I said, if you don’t want to know, don’t ask me. You want to hold on to those records as long as you can. Most of the time, you want to hold on to them until you die.
“But you always want a guy to break a record that you think is like you, that plays like you and played the game like you played the game and is worthy of breaking a record like that, and Adrian Peterson is a guy most definitely worthy of breaking that record.”
Davis knew what Dickerson would say before he said it.
“I know Eric very well, and I know Eric is not rooting for Adrian to break that record,” said Davis, who owns the record for most rushing yards in a season including the playoffs (2,476 in 1998). “He makes no bones about it. I guess he said if it were going to be broken, then Adrian is a guy he wouldn’t mind breaking it. But I still know E.D. He wants to hold on to that record as long as he can, until he dies. I think we all feel that way about records. You break a record, I think you want to hold on to that record.”
Peterson made some waves last week by saying Dickerson should be worried about the record. Dickerson, who broke O.J. Simpson’s mark of 2,003 yards set in 1973, admitted this week Peterson “has a shot.”
Of course, Peterson has a few records of his own, including the single-game mark of 296 yards set against the San Diego Chargers in his 2007 rookie season. He fully understands Dickerson’s position.
“Yeah, I don’t want anyone to break my game record, 296,” Peterson said. “If they do, I’ll congratulate him. Hopefully, it’s me. But I don’t want anyone to break it. So I understand where he’s coming from.”
A few of Dickerson’s former teammates might be getting nervous as well. Dickerson said he heard from his left tackle, Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, this week. An under-reported part of reaching 2,000 yards is the pride taken by the offensive linemen who clear the path to the milestone.
Slater and Dickerson’s talk centered on the latest threat to the record, and Slater lamented the defensive effort last week from the current Rams, who let Peterson accelerate his chase with 212 yards.
“He said, ‘I want to keep that record,’ ” Dickerson said of Slater to Yahoo! Sports Radio. “So, all the guys that were a part of that would like to keep that record. But once again, he says exactly what I said, ‘If a guy like Adrian breaks it, you’re happy for a guy like him because he’s such a great player. He plays hard. He runs hard and he epitomizes that position, running back.”
If Peterson’s got next, who’s got best?
Dickerson’s record season stands alone for the pure accomplishment. And Peterson’s is unprecedented because of the comeback from injury. Yet, Davis believes the first 2,000-yard season – Simpson’s 2,003 in 1973 – remains the most impressive.
Simpson broke Jim Brown’s 10-year hold on the record in only 14 games, averaging 6.0 yards per carry on 332 rushing attempts.
Sanders holds the best per-carry average in a 2,000-yard season at 6.1. Dickerson averaged 5.6, taking 379 carries.
Peterson, if he maintains his pace and gets to 2,000 yards, would top them all at 6.3 yards per rush. But 14 games is 14 games, and Peterson is far short of Simpson with 14 in the books.
“To me, he’s in a different league with that,” Davis said of Simpson.
So what will Peterson’s 2,000-yard – or 2,106-yard – season be remembered for if he plays the final two games like he did the first 14?
“He’s the Energizer bunny,” Davis said. “The guy runs like that carry is his last carry ever and he knows one gear. You don’t see that with a lot of backs, guys that run with that type of intensity on every run. Most backs will, I know, ‘One play here I’m not going to run as hard,’ Not hard, but maybe I’m going to gauge it and be more patient. I think Adrian is trying to make a statement every time he touches the ball. It’s evident.”
Greg Pogue of FOXSportsTennessee.com contributed to this story.