Peterson's legacy threatened by losing

BY Reid Forgrave • October 4, 2011

The best running back in the NFL stood in the solemn visitors’ locker room, his shoulders drooped, a sour look on his face, his team’s bleak future staring back at him.

“I hate losing,” Peterson said, his quiet voice breaking with emotion. “I feel like crying right now. This is not a good feeling.”

And this is a jarring feeling, too, seeing hopelessness consume the man who could go down as the finest running back and one of the finest athletes of his generation.

Worse, weeks after Peterson signed a $100 million contract extension that could keep him in Minnesota for seven more years, the 2011 Vikings seem stuck in reverse. So a quite different running-back comparison seems more appropriate.

Peterson’s young Vikings career has been awash in high expectations for his team and in guaranteed excitement on the field — but also marked by his team always falling short.

The Vikings have started seven quarterbacks in Peterson’s five years, with some fans now calling for an eighth, the unproven first-rounder Christian Ponder. The team has long had a vaunted defensive line, but now it is ranked only 19th in total yards allowed.

Peterson is on his second coach, after Brad Childress’ firing last year, and if things don’t turn around soon, Leslie Frazier could become an ex-coach, too.

Any of this sound familiar?

In 1989, the Detroit Lions drafted in the first round an exciting running back from Oklahoma State named Barry Sanders. Sanders was fresh off a Heisman Trophy season that some called the greatest individual college performance of all time. He quickly became the toast of the NFL.

Sanders’ team made the NFC Championship Game in his third season after finishing 12-4 in the regular season. The Lions lost, and, with a rotating cast of quarterbacks who ranged from Andre Ware to Don Majkowski, never made it back.

In 2007, the Vikings used their first-round pick on Peterson, an exciting running back from the University of Oklahoma who a couple years before nearly won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman. Peterson quickly became the toast of the NFL.

The Vikings built their team around him, and Peterson made the Pro Bowl his first four seasons. In those first four seasons, he ran for 5,782 yards, 108 yards more than Sanders, and scored the same number of touchdowns.

Yet the Vikings have started Peterson’s career barely above .500, at 36-32. They made the NFC Championship Game in Peterson’s third season after finishing 12-4 in the regular season. They lost, and they don’t seem headed back any time soon.

Their running styles, of course, are quite different. Sanders was the ultimate scatback who ducked and twisted his way down the field. Peterson is an Eddie George/Eric Dickerson-style back with the speed to run away from you and the power to run you over. (Said Chuck Foreman, the Vikings’ star running back in the 1970s: “Barry was more like a Houdini, and Adrian, he’s not a wrecking ball, but he’s a brute. He’s a bully.”

But the career arcs of Sanders and Peterson are, to this point, remarkably similar.

And while no running back would shirk from a comparison to Sanders, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest of all time, the gloomy comparison for Vikings fans is the ignominious ending to Sanders career: He abruptly retired in 1997, still at the top of his game and just a year removed from a 2,053-yard season.

The decision came after the Lions had their third 5-11 season in the past seven years. It was the culture of losing, Sanders admitted, that pushed him away from the team and the game.

After Peterson’s Vikings came within a Brett Favre interception of making the Super Bowl after the 2009 season, things have been pretty dismal in Minnesota.

First the Favre sexting scandal. Then the team’s implosion on the field. Then, in the final, insulting metaphor for a lost season, the roof caved in on the Metrodome. All of that followed by this year’s 0-4 — in the year their stadium lease runs out.

"They're in trouble as a franchise," longtime Minneapolis sportswriter Larry Fitzgerald Sr. said. “They don’t have any stability in their stadium situation. The roof collapsed last year, the lease ends this year, and the (new stadium) proposal … is on the table, but it won’t get support in an election year.”

Similarities between the Lions of the 1990s and the Vikings of today, similarities between Sanders and Peterson: These are not things Vikings fans want to hear.

One man who knows this comparison best is Rick Spielman, the Vikings’ vice president of player personnel, who drafted Peterson in 2007 — and who was a Lions scout when Sanders played there.

“It’s the same feeling you get when watch them both play — you’re excited when they get the ball,” Spielman said. “With that unique skill set they have, they can take a team next level.”

One problem: How many winning NFL teams are constructed around marquee running backs? Not many. Instead, today’s successful NFL archetype is constructed around franchise quarterbacks and high-percentage passing games where the run is used to complement the pass.

Imagine the Saints constructed around Ricky Williams instead of Drew Brees: No Super Bowl for that franchise. And Chris Johnson’s Tennessee Titans? No playoffs after his 2,000-yard season.

But there are a few signs that Peterson’s Vikings could have a brighter future than any of Sanders’ Lions teams.

One is that the free-agency era ushered in during the middle of Sanders’ career makes it easier for a team to improve quickly. Another is that the answer to the Vikings’ rotating cast at quarterback could be solidified under their most recent first-round pick.

“A lot of what Adrian’s legacy at least immediately is going to come down to is Christian Ponder, who is the heir apparent,” said Vikings play-by-play announcer Paul Allen.

“We’re not constructed to explode down the field with the passing game. We are constructed to play really physical defense, really physical offense and win close games, and a lot of that is predicated on Adrian — who, like Barry, is a home-run hitter.

“The difference,” Allen continued, “is, with Barry, all that legacy, that’s all done. With Jared Allen and Chad Greenway and maybe Christian Ponder … this thing can be back on the beam sooner instead of later.”

In the visitors’ locker room at Arrowhead Stadium, Peterson — always polite, always the consummate professional, just like Sanders — answered the media’s difficult questions about his team’s disappointing start.

“Not what I imagined,” he said, “but then again, we got a long season ahead of us. … Thank God we have 12 more, and we can win all 12.”

But, asked one Minneapolis sports columnist, could the reality be that the Vikings simply don’t have the talent?

Peterson bristled. This team’s future, Peterson’s demeanor seemed to say, still is bright, no matter if last season and the first four games of this season indicate otherwise.

“That’s not what it is at all,” he replied. “People are going to speculate and say what they want. I’m fine with that. I feel like we have what it takes to be a championship team.

"Have we shown that in four weeks? No, we haven’t shown that. We got to get this thing turned around. We got too much talent.”

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