I apologize to you, Adrian Peterson. Mea culpa for my questioning your ability to return to top form this season after your offseason left knee ACL and MCL surgery.
In my predictions for SI.com's season preview, I picked Peterson to have a let-down season. My bad. The mistake I made was to cast Peterson with the majority of ACL returnees who usually struggle in their first season after surgery, especially when the injury occurs late in the prior season, as Peterson's did.
My reasoning wasn't entirely off. Defenses have stacked the box to try to stop him, daring the Vikings to throw. And he's not getting much help from Christian Ponder, who ranks 24th in rating.
And yet, Peterson is still having a phenomenal season.
The Vikings offensive line and defense are improved, but Peterson is by far the major reason the Vikings are 6-5 and in the playoff hunt. His league-leading 1,236 rushing yards make him a front-runner, along with Peyton Manning, for Comeback Player of the Year, but that's not all. He's also a top candidate for MVP and Offensive Player of the Year.
Peterson has always been special, going back to his days as an Oklahoma All-American. So I expected him to return to top form eventually, just not this quickly. He has been on a mission to prove that he can come back better than ever. And amazingly, he has raised the bar on a career that has earned him Pro Bowl honors in his first four NFL seasons.
Peterson's current 5.8 average yards per carry is a career high, and he's on pace to top his previous best 1,760 rushing yards in 2008. He started this season with 84 yards rushing and two touchdowns against Jacksonville, and he's gotten even better as the season has progressed.
In anticipating Peterson's comeback, I just did not give enough consideration to his outstanding work ethic. He is a throwback to vintage running backs, complete backs who can do it all -- run, catch and block. You know the list: Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, etc.
I only got to see Jim Brown on TV as a kid, but certainly knew of his greatness. I remember seeing Sayers score five touchdowns for the Bears against the Vikings in the '60s before his career was wrecked by knee injuries. Simpson was still flourishing as a top back in Buffalo when I started my NFL career.
As for Payton and Sanders -- they were twice-a-year divisional thorns in the side of my Minnesota Vikings when they played for the Bears and Lions, respectively. I was in my second season with the Vikings in 1977 when I saw Payton run for a then-NFL single-game record 275 yards against us in Soldier Field (the current holder of that record is -- guess who -- Peterson, with 296 yards rushing against San Diego in 2007). And I've always said that Sanders was the greatest pure runner I ever saw in person during the 10 years I watched our defenders grasp at air as they tried to tackle him. Dickerson was a Hall of Fame back who my Vikings teams also faced in '80s and '90s. Many scouts compared Peterson to Dickerson in terms of size, speed, power, moves and overall running style when he first entered the NFL as the seventh overall pick in 2007.
Yes, I've seen a lot of great backs. I've seen great running backs, such as Denver's Terrell Davis, have their careers derailed by major knee injuries. And I saw Robert Smith rebound from a couple of knee injuries early in his career to eventually become the NFC's leading rusher in 2000.
But I've never seen the kind of remarkable season that Adrian Peterson is producing just eight months after reconstructive knee surgery. We know that medical advances have helped players return to the field quicker than in the past. But Peterson's recovery is off the charts. The Vikings trusted Peterson's work ethic to the extent that they allowed him to do part of his rehab in Houston during the offseason. And he has been a man possessed since coming to training camp.
Two other starting running backs who suffered ACL injuries last season demonstrate the unpredictable timetable for full recovery. Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall was hurt in the 2011 regular season finale and he has played in only four games this season, with 113 yards rushing, as an Achilles problem complicated his recovery. On the other hand, Jamaal Charles (928 rushing yards and a 4.8-yard average) is having a very good season for the lowly Chiefs. Charles, however, was injured in mid-September of 2011, meaning he's had three more months to recover compared to Peterson and Mendenhall.
In today's pass-happy NFL, the freakishly talented and highly motivated Peterson is carrying a winning team on his back. He is proving to be worth every penny of the $10 million per year extension -- best among NFL backs -- he signed last season with the Vikings.
Leslie Frazier says the post-ACL Peterson's strength, cuts and burst are as good as ever, and he has improved catching the ball and staying truer to his reads in the run game. What Frazier says is evident in Peterson's game-clinching 61-yard TD run in the Week 10 win over the Lions, as he burst through the line, cut outside and outran defenders.
In his comeback year, Peterson has surpassed Smith as the Vikings all-time leading rusher. He has been productive against every defense he's faced, with the lone exception being Indianapolis in Week 2, when the Colts held him to 60 yards rushing and 20 yards receiving. He has over 100 yards combined in every other game. This includes strong numbers against top defenses -- 106 total yards rushing against the vaunted 49ers, 123 yards rushing vs. the Bucs, 182 yards rushing against Seattle.
The remaining regular season games will provide a stiff challenge for Peterson and the Vikings. Three of the last five games are on the road. Three games are against divisional rivals higher in the standings (one against the Bears, two against the Packers). And that's not to mention a tough matchup at Houston.
Surely, the upcoming defenses will continue to key on him, as have the previous 11 opponents. If Peterson can lead the Vikings to the playoffs against all odds, his already legendary status and first ballot Hall of Fame credentials will be further solidified.
Jeff Diamond is the former VP/GM of the Minnesota Vikings, former president of the Tennessee Titans and was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. He currently does sports and business consulting along with media work.