EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Age might just be a number to some people, but don’t go telling it to an NFL running back.
To a running back — and the teams making decisions on said backs — 30 is the benchmark number. A 30-year-old is considered near-ancient at the position. Reaching the fourth decade of life isn’t an accomplishment for NFL running backs. It’s considered the time when skills precipitously decline and a career change is likely around the corner.
Adrian Peterson isn’t a big believer in conventional thought.
Now 29, Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl back, said turning 30 won’t matter to him, just as having to go through major knee reconstruction proved to be of little issue.
"The same thing I thought when they say, ‘ACL, you’ll never come back from it,’" Peterson said Thursday when asked about approaching 30. "It is what is. It doesn’t apply to me. I have a totally different mindset and mind frame. So, I’ll just stay in my lane and let everybody else say what they have to say because it’s just the way it is. So I don’t really get into it and try to prove anything to people. I just go out there and control what I can control and go out there and try to perform every year."
Peterson defied logic in 2012 when he returned from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament to start in Week 1 and go on to win the NFL MVP award. He’s in the business of proving conventional thought wrong.
The skepticism is beginning to increase again.
Thirty is creeping closer and Peterson had offseason surgery for the third year in a row. He only played 14 games last year in his age-28 season — never mind the fact he finished fifth in the league in rushing with 1,266 yards despite missing two games. His 90.4-yard average per game ranked second in the league to LeSean McCoy, who led the league in rushing with 100.4 yards per game and 1,607 total rushing yards.
McCoy, of course, went on record saying he believes he’s the best back in the league after his league-leading season. Peterson has seen challengers to his title before.
Asked again about McCoy’s assertion, Peterson responded: "It really don’t bother me. Since I’ve been in the league, every year there’s been a guy that’s better than me. When I came in I had the same mentality. I’m the best, just try to put in the work and go out there and prove it. I understand where he’s coming from. I play this game for one reason and that’s to be the best — obviously to win a championship — but personally to be the best player. So I love his mentality."
There have been occasional contenders. Chris Johnson’s 2,000-yard season in 2009 prompted similar claims by Johnson about being the best back in the league. Meanwhile, Peterson goes about his business.
He’s twice led the league in rushing. The only season of his career in which he finished with less than last year’s 1,266 rushing yards was in 2011 when he was limited to 12 games because of injuries, including his knee. During his MVP season, he finished with the second-most single-season rushing yards in NFL history with 2,097 and broke the quarterback stranglehold on the MVP award.
And with seven seasons in the books, nearing 30, Peterson is second among active players with 10,115 rushing yards. Steven Jackson, 31, has 10,678 yards in 10 seasons. Peterson enters this season as Minnesota’s leading back, who’s 27th on the all-time rushing list and would climb to 19th simply with another 1,000-yard season.
McCoy, 26 and with two fewer seasons than Peterson, has 5,473 rushing yards.
"You are what you think, but you’ve got to put in the work as well," Peterson said. "You think that you’re the second-best, you’re going to remain in that position. But he’s going to have to work extremely hard to surpass me."
Peterson is working, motivated by the potential in the new Vikings offense.
"Everything that we’ve asked him to do, he’s done; even more," coach Mike Zimmer said. "One day he came to me during one of the OTAs and said — this was early — ‘You know, I’ve gone pretty hard the last couple days, I might need a little time off today.’ I said, ‘OK, do me a favor. Go out on the field and stretch and then we’ll hold you out.’
"So I went and told the running back coach after stretch, ‘Shut him down,’ and he went back to Kirby Wilson and he said, ‘You know, he’s feeling pretty good. Can he keep going?’ I said, ‘Sure, let’s go.’ So I think he likes competing. And I think he likes being around the guys. And he is a good guy. I’ve had several conversations with him when I first got here, and I have the utmost respect for him."
One feature Peterson could improve on is his pass catching, a trait the Vikings and offensive coordinator Norv Turner plan to utilize more this season.
Peterson’s pass-catching acumen is among the surprises for Zimmer.
"From watching him on tape, you know he’s fast, you know he’s powerful," Zimmer said. "Some of the cuts that I’ve seen him make are just outstanding. The way he catches the ball is very good. I didn’t know what kind of receiver he was. I guess that would be the two biggest things. Some of the cuts he made were, wow, like some of the great backs you’ve been around."
Great back sounds more like what Peterson envisions himself as, not worrying about turning 30. But how many more seasons does Peterson think he can keep it up?
"Well, I was talking to Favre," Peterson said of former teammate Brett Favre. "Forty sounds a good number."