(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Adrian Peterson’s quest for 2,500 yards is running up against the cold reality of NFL defenses primed to stop him. But there’s a beauty in his pursuit of runners who came before him, and in his evoking the lost glory of the ground game

By Andrew Lawrence
September 26, 2013

Twenty-five hundred is a nice round number. It is also an absurd number, even by the NFL’s warped statistical standards. Absurd enough to make Marshall Faulk do a spit take.

Nine months ago Faulk interviewed Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for an NFL Network segment. Well, Faulk tried to, anyway. His inner fanboy kept getting in the way, but that was no sin on this particular occasion. Peterson had just come within nine yards of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105 a year after completely shredding his left knee. In February he was named the league MVP, finishing with 11 more first-place votes than Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. AD’s thunderous comeback was affirmation that there is no miracle beyond the reach of the player known as Purple Jesus.

Still, Faulk’s faith in the helmeted messiah wobbled some when Peterson stated his goal for the 2013 season: to rush for 2,500 yards. Fourteen years ago Faulk got close to that number—71 yards short—during an MVP season with the St. Louis Rams, but that was in total yards from scrimmage, rushing (1,381) and receiving (1,048). Faulk was skeptical of Peterson’s ambition, but not enough to dismiss it entirely. He wanted to take that leap of faith. He wanted to follow Purple Jesus.

“Seriously,” Faulk said, putting a hand to his chest as he sputtered toward the next bit. “I don’t want to insult you, but do you really feel like you can get twenty-five hundred yards?”

“Yeah,” Peterson said. “It’s definitely out there. I can get it.”

In pro football no statistical milestone is sacred. How can it be when the fans’ memories are so short? If no one remembers what came first, what was to stop AD from saying what would come next, especially after such a remarkable 2012?

This particular strain of amnesia is unusual for a sport that America cares about more than its next breath. When baseball was on top of the sports food chain, statistical milestones didn’t just live on paper. They lived in your head, next door to the geography facts and the social studies trivia; their front porch was the tip of your tongue. When players like Joe DiMaggio and Hank Aaron took aim at milestones, the country hung on every pitch. And when they blew those marks away, the new ones became immortal.

In pro football, no milestone is sacred. How can it be when memories are so short?

A baseball milestone had real currency. A pro football milestone is Monopoly money; it’s only worth keeping tabs on while the game is going on. Math is an inexorable part of football life, ruling every facet of the game from the geography of the field to the stakes of a possession to the hierarchy of the men who play to how much money those men make—that last bit seemingly the only number fans really cling to. Yet the league’s habit for making up the rules as it goes doesn’t exactly make the action that builds inside the box score and culminates inside the record book any easier to follow.

From 1947 to ’78 the length of the NFL season jumped from 12 games to 14 and then to 16, and it could take another leap forward in the very near term. Individual statistics not only differ from one side of the ball to the other, but between certain positions too. Some results (such as sacks) were not recorded until recently, while others (tackles) are often sweetened (or muddled) by in-house scorekeepers. And then, just when football numbers couldn’t seem any more arbitrary, along comes fantasy football to turn all of this chaos into something resembling an NBA score line. For a nation accustomed to seeing the world in terms of pitchers and catchers, this is a lot to take in.

It’s no wonder that winning has, by default, become the ultimate milestone for the ultimate team game. It’s why past Super Bowl winning teams are so much easier to remember than, say, past all-time single season rushing champions. And that’s too bad. Once upon a time there was no higher expression of teamwork than a well-oiled run game.

* * *

Steve Van Buren led the league in rushing four times, but because he never played more than 12 games, his yearly numbers pale compared to later runners. (Bettmann/Corbis) Philadelphia’s Steve Van Buren led the league in rushing four times, but because he never played more than 12 games, his yearly numbers pale compared to those of later runners. (Bettmann/Corbis)

Before the passing game came along in full force, gaining a yard used to be, well, hard. There was no throwing over or around the strength of a defense, only ramming straight through. And there was no making any headway without a bone-deep commitment from all 11 men on offense. A chorus line effort from the blockers wasn’t enough to get the job done. The quarterback had to swallow his pride. The back had to have patience, vision and a body that could stand up to routine abuse. Receivers had to block their butts off. The matchup nightmares? Those came later in the game, after the other side cried uncle. “The defense does not know what to do when a team is dominating them physically,” says former Cleveland Browns back Jim Brown, perhaps the best to ever do this. “You don’t dominate a team in the same sense by passing. When you run it, it is the essence of football.”

Ground and pound spoke to a team’s toughness and attitude. Everyone in the stadium knew what was coming, and yet the only ones who could stop it were the guys holding the ball. The baddest backs on the block were the ones who could string together enough 100-yard games to get north of 1,000 yards by season’s end. From 1937 to ’56, when a season still spanned 12 games, only four men did: Chicago’s Beattie Feathers (with 1,004 yards in 1934), Philadelphia’s Steve Van Buren (1,008 yards in 1947 and 1,146 in ’49), San Francisco’s Joe Perry (1,018 yards in 1953 and 1,049 in ’54), and the Bears’ Rick Casares (1,126 yards in 1956). And then Brown came streaking into the league in 1957 like a stiff arm to the septum.

For many, Jim Brown remains the standard by which backs are judged. But can you recall a single stat associated with him, on the order of 714 or 755? (Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated) For many, Jim Brown remains the standard by which backs are judged. But can you recall a single definitive stat associated with him, on the order of 714 or 755? (Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated)

Brown didn’t know Steve Van Buren from Martin Van Buren. What’s more, “I didn’t give a foot,” he says. (See? Attitude.) What he did know was how to run the hell out of a sweep. Brown’s knack for this was owed to his physical gifts—specifically, a 6-2, 232-pound body that combined the strength an elephant with the speed of a gazelle—and also to the film study sessions he convened with his offensive linemen on the night before games.

After a 942-yard rookie season, Brown ran for well over 1,000 yards every season for the next eight years. The best of his many eye-popping odometer readings came in 1963, when he rushed for 1,863 yards in 14 games. (That’s 133 yards per game for those of you still struggling to keep score at home.) And it might’ve been more than that, says former Cleveland guard John Wooten, one of Brown’s lead blockers, if Brown wasn’t taking himself out of blowouts-in-progress to let his backups get some burn.

“If you look at the scores during those games, you’ll see that we were winning by two to three touchdowns,” Wooten says. “Jim would come to the sideline in the third and fourth quarters and say to [Browns coach] Blanton [Collier], ‘Put Charlie Scales in, put in Kenny Webb—let those guys have it.’ And because of that we didn’t get to the 2,000-yard mark. I’ll be very selfish and tell you that still bothers me. If we had been thinking out loud we could’ve set a record that nobody would ever have broken, you know?”

And that’s the real beauty in the single-season rushing record. They might print the runner’s name next to it but, really, this one’s for the linemen. The few stats that blockers compile mostly charge them only for their mistakes; the rushing record is the exception, the equivalent of an Academy Award for Best Picture. A special runner gives them license to dream big.

* * *

There was a time when O.J. Simpson was admired, beloved even, for what he did on a football field. Forty years ago he had arguably the greatest rushing season in history: 2,003 yards in 14 games. His average of 143.1 yards per game that year is 10 more than any other rusher has managed. (Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated) There was a time when O.J. Simpson was admired, beloved even, for what he did on a football field. Forty years ago he had arguably the greatest rushing season in history: 2,003 yards in 14 games. His average of 143.1 yards per game that year is 10 more than any other rusher has managed. (Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated)

Ten years later the Buffalo Bills would have just such a back in O.J. Simpson. Before Simpson gained infamy as the defendant in the most divisive court case since the Dred Scott decision, he was the most blessed of the football gods’ creations. Like Brown the 6-2, 212-pound Simpson was a marvel of size and speed—perfect for the sweep. But where Brown ran over and through would-be tacklers, Simpson preferred to turn on the afterburners and surge past. “You just got in front of somebody, and the guy would blow by him,” recalls former Buffalo Bills guard Joe DeLamielleure, who earned a ticket to Canton by escorting Simpson around the gridiron. “He was incredible.”

The Juice, as he was known, was a world-class sprinter—while a junior at USC he was part of the four-man team that set the world record in the 4 x 110-yard relay at 1967 NCAA track championships. As a senior he won the Heisman Trophy. For a product of San Francisco public housing who was leading his own street gang—the Superiors—by the time he was a teenager, this was quite a turnaround. “What I thought was probably the more interesting parts of O.J. is how close he came in his early years to ending up where he is now,” says Larry Fox, an ex-New York Daily News reporter who covered the Bills and wrote a book about the Juice’s 2,000-yard march, The O.J. Simpson Story. “I was telling my wife the other day that it seems to me like a different version of Appointment in Samarra.”

In the spring of 1969 Buffalo made Simpson the top pick in the draft and signed him to a four-year, $300,000 contract—a sizeable outlay for the day. But Buffalo would make the money back and more by playing exhibition games in stadiums that accommodated exponentially more fans than their home field, the 40,000-seat War Memorial Stadium. And by 1973 the Bills were playing home games in a bigger ballpark—Rich Stadium, since renamed for owner Ralph Wilson.

Simpson had an abiding respected for his O-line, dubbed The Electric Company because they turned on The Juice. (Wil Blanche/Sports Illustrated) Simpson duly credited his blockers—his Bills O-line was dubbed The Electric Company because they turned on The Juice. (Wil Blanche/Sports Illustrated)

That’s how Ruthian a figure O.J. was in the game. “He was the most famous athlete that ever played in this country, a combination of Willie Mays and Muhammad Ali,” DeLamielleure says, with perhaps a bit of hyperbole. “In 15 years I never saw player who practiced harder or was more generous with his time. He would sit and sign autographs until everyone was gone, visit with special-education kids—I don’t think there was ever a superstar who was more down to earth and good with the common people. Now it’s like you barely see these guys. I live in Charlotte, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Carolina Panther just going to a grocery store. They all live in gated communities. It’s just too bad what happened to him . . . .”

The formidable line that the Bills placed in front of Simpson in 1973 lived up to their nickname—The Electric Company, because they turned on The Juice, on the field and off. Fox reveals in his book that it was actually second-year guard Reggie McKenzie who gave voice to the idea that the Browns’ Wooten thought of but left unsaid years earlier.

Before the Bills reported for camp that year Simpson called McKenzie.

“You know, with the guys we’ve got to block, I think I should gain 1,700 yards this year,” Simpson said. “Maybe I’ll even have a shot at Jim Brown’s record.”

“Why don’t we go for two grand?” McKenzie said. And they were off.

In the 1973 opener against the New England Patriots, Simpson ran for 250 yards, enough to earn a few series off in the game. By the seventh game, at home against Kansas City, he was already at 1,000. Entering the last week of the season, on the road against the New York Jets at Shea Stadium, Simpson was staring down three milestones: the ’73 rushing crown, Brown’s alltime mark and McKenzie’s 2K summit. That afternoon, his teammates ticking down the yards to go with each carry, Simpson rolled for 200 yards in a 34-14 walkover. After the Bills carried him on their shoulders to the sideline in triumph, Simpson defied Bills public relations director Budd Thalman and hauled his fellow starters into the press room for his post-game news conference, recognizing each man with a generous, comedic flourish. “I just want you to know I hope to stay in the league until all these guys get old,” Simpson told the assembled press. “That way no young back can get behind them and break my records.”

* * *

Eric Dickerson’s 2105 yards in 1984 has stood the test of time, though he had two more games than Brown, Simpson or Payton did in their most productive years. (Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated) Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 yards in 1984 has stood the test of time, though he had two more games than Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson or Walter Payton did in their most productive seasons. (Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated)

Of course other electrical companies would emerge over the years to give great backs a jolt. Blame deregulation, which in the NFL meant narrowing the hash marks and watering down offensive blocking tactics to make the game faster and safer. Since Simpson started the 2,000-yard club, six players have gained entry. The next man up, the Rams’ Eric Dickerson, charged in 11 years after The Juice with a 2,105-yard effort in 1984—but he needed that 16-game schedule to get there.

Fan amnesia being what it is in football, especially when it comes to milestones, we let this slide without an asterisk. Instead we dwell on the fact that those Rams, while winners that season, went on to lose in the first-round of the playoffs; that Juice’s Bills were league doormats; that all this running was going nowhere fast. Dickerson’s peak came a year after the rookie sesaons of John Elway and Dan Marino, bookends of the quarterback draft class that would launch the NFL’s passing era. Fifteen years later, when a torn ACL—the same injury Peterson suffered—essentially cut down Denver Broncos tailback Terrell Davis (2,008 yards in 1998) in his prime, teams began rethinking the wisdom of entrusting so much of their offense to one guy, especially as more rules were drafted to protect the quarterback. Who needed attitude when intellect could win the day?

Furthermore, who cared if Dickerson’s milestone wasn’t really the record? Heck, who could even remember it? Never mind that when it comes to rushing, these are the two milestones that should end any debate about greatness: 5.2, Brown’s career average yards per carry; and 143.1, Simpson’s average yards per game in 1973. These numbers are not like, say, Tom Brady’s record 50 touchdown passes, a six-year-old mark that may not last through 2013 if Peyton Manning keeps lighting things up. Those rushing milestones are the truest testament to the strength in numbers, to the triumph of 11 men against the Sisyphean hill. These numbers hold magic.

chris-johnson-2009-800 Chris Johnson’s career proves the difficulty of repeating a 2,000-yard season; since his 2,006 in 2009, he hasn’t come within 600 yards of 2K. (John Iacono/Sports Illustrated)

Clearly, Peterson has magic in reserve. In December 2012 alone he averaged 172.2 yards in five games—impressive, even though Simpson still has him beat with 185.3 yards over his last three games in ’73. But there’s a reason why no back has rushed for more than 2,000 yards a second time. Along with the odds, defenses are stacked against Peterson in 2013; his 2,500-yard pronouncement probably played like background noise to preoccupied defensive coordinators. “The second year is just totally different,” says Davis. “The attention you get from defenses is something you don’t really want. It felt like I was playing against 14 people out there: The guy in the stands with the popcorn, the ref, the usher. I couldn’t believe they had that many players on defense. It felt illegal.”

The second year is just totally different,” says Terrell Davis. “It felt like I was playing against 14 people out there.

So it was for Peterson in the season opener against the Lions, who dropped eight men in the box on 15 of Peterson’s first 16 runs. Apart from his 78-yarder to start the game—a comedy of missed tackles at the point of attack, bad angles at the next level and Peterson’s blazing straight-ahead speed in the open field—the Detroit D played a disciplined game, holding the MVP to 15 yards on his next 17 carries. The trend continued against the Bears; after gashing them for a 36-yard run, Peterson was held to 2.6 yards per carry the rest of the way. Last Sunday the Browns did not let Peterson have a run of more than nine yards.

Peterson should be helped by the return of Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton—a player who, by himself, Peterson says was “worth 600 to 700 yards … and maybe more”—who was suspended for the first three games of the season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. But if he does get on a roll and threatens the record again, defenses will be even more intent on stopping him. AD’s 2012 regular-season finale against the Packers had Brian Billick flashing back to 2003, when he was coach of the Ravens and Jamal Lewis was 153 yards from the Dickerson’s mark going into the season finale against Pittsburgh. Billick gave Lewis 27 cracks to get over the threshold, but 114 yards was the best Lewis could do against a Steelers D that was playing for its future peace of mind. “There’s no question they did,” Billick says. “When they start stacking that box with eight, nine and 10 guys, it’s because they don’t want to be that team that lets Jamal Lewis break the alltime record. Because that [go-ahead] run is gonna be seen I don’t know how many millions of times by I don’t know how many millions of people. Not only just that week, but in the Hall of Fame. In every replay of that individual. Every time a back gets close.”

And yet, despite the stratospherically high bar Peterson has set for himself, despite the fact that he has 2,219 yards to go, many of his fellow backs are rooting for him. That’s why Brown agreed to be interviewed for this story (“I really just wanted to pay my respects to him publicly for having that kind of a year under those circumstances,” he said); why Faulk calls Peterson “Superman;” why Davis says “just retire him and put him in Canton” if AD clears 2,000 again. Even Dickerson, for as much he doesn’t want Peterson to break his record, still recognizes him as “great."

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