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As Adrian Peterson Embarks on His Encore, Running Back Greats Describe Their Second Acts

He's not the first to try it (Tony Dorsett? O.J. Simpson? Emmitt Smith?), but Adrian Peterson is looking to prove that there are second acts for NFL running backs. Can he pick up his story where he left off? Former players offer advice.

ADRIAN PETERSON hasn’t had to make a first impression in a locker room in a decade, rare in a business where rosters shift as often as a running back making cuts across the field. But the 11,747 yards he gained in 10 years with the Vikings are far from the only reason the Saints speak of him with awe.

They try to keep up with the 32-year-old Peterson in wind sprints after practice in the oppressive Louisiana heat. They watch as he does one-legged, 48-inch box jumps onto his right knee with cartilage that was repaired less than a year ago. His new coach, Sean Payton, describes Peterson as having a certain “temperament” to his running style, the very same one anyone who’s watched the NFL in the last 10 years can recognize—upright and powerful and aggressive, with his knees high and churning.

“There’s something about getting a do-over,” Peterson says. “Starting over. That right there is kind of refreshing. It revives you.”

Peterson in New Orleans, and Marshawn Lynch in Oakland, are on the same mission: As running backs with more than 2,000 NFL carries each to their names, they’re trying to prove—with new teams—that their best days aren’t behind them. In February, Minnesota declined an $18 million contract option to keep Peterson; Lynch, 31, is making his return after a yearlong retirement from the Seahawks. Raiders coach Jack Del Rio commemorated his comeback by tweeting a practice video of Lynch juking the entire Oakland defense.

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For all the optimism surrounding both running backs’ rebirths, history offers a cloudier prognosis. For every Marcus Allen, who kept his career going until 37 with a successful five-year, post-Raiders stint in Kansas City, there is a parade of Hall of Fame running backs who had brief and forgettable final acts: Emmitt Smith’s two seasons with the Cardinals, Tony Dorsett’s year with the Broncos, Thurman Thomas’s year with the Dolphins, Franco Harris’s eight games with the Seahawks, Eric Dickerson’s four games with the Falcons. O.J. Simpson was traded to San Francisco—for the hefty price of five draft choices—long after his juice was gone.

“Marcus Allen is a guy who stands out,” Peterson says, “but I haven’t really done all the research. I don’t like really looking at people that are what they consider ‘over the hill,’ in the tail end of their careers.” In his voice, the disdain for that label is clear. He declares he wants to play five or six more years. To keep himself feeling young, Peterson spends the offseason training with backs who are closer to 20 than 30, including Melvin Gordon, Ty Montgomery and Joe Mixon. “I see what I’m able to do,” Peterson says, “and I know I still have it.”

It’s one of the most intriguing questions of the 2017 NFL season: Can Peterson and Lynch pick up where they left off in Minnesota and Seattle? The stories of those who have attempted to write a new chapter to their careers offer some important clues, as greats of the past share the good, bad and ugly of the running back swan song.

After 11 seasons with the Raiders, Marcus Allen went to Kansas City, where he tallied 3698 yards and 44 touchdowns on the ground in five seasons.

After 11 seasons with the Raiders, Marcus Allen went to Kansas City, where he tallied 3698 yards and 44 touchdowns on the ground in five seasons.

In his 13th season with the Cowboys, Emmitt Smith passed Walter Payton to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. A year later he was playing for the Cardinals, who were eager to add a perennial Pro Bowler and three-time Super Bowl champion. Expectations were high after Smith signed a two-year deal to become the face of the lagging franchise. EMMITT MAKES IMPACT IN ARIZONA’S MINICAMP, read an AP headline.

Smith: Your stardom doesn’t leave. I tell people all the time, change happens. It’s not the change that really affects you, it’s your attitude toward the change. As long as you have the proper attitude, you can manage. It’s still football, whether it’s in Minnesota or New Orleans, Seattle or Oakland. But you come to realize how much you love the team that you once played for. For me, I came to realize how much my love for this sport was wrapped around the Dallas Cowboys.

On Oct. 5, 2003, Smith returned to Dallas, only to leave with an injury during the second quarter after rushing for minus-one yard in a loss to his old team.

Smith: It was a heart-wrenching moment when I went back to Texas Stadium to play against my Cowboys. That was difficult, because it was a team that I’ll always want to play for. Not being in that Cowboy uniform when I went back was very difficult.

Smith’s yards per carry in 2003 was a career-low 2.8. His rushing line in two seasons in Arizona: 357 carries, 1,193 yards, 11 TDs. Smith retired as a member of the Cardinals, but for all intents and purposes he was still a Cowboy. Jerry Jones stood alongside him at his final press conference.

Smith: I would do it again, and the reason why I would do it again is because I was able to have closure and know that my time had come, and my time had gone. It’s not that I can’t do it anymore. It’s why am I doing it? I’ve done everything that I wanted to do. I won three Super Bowls. I became the all-time leading rusher. I’ve been to Pro Bowls. I’ve done all these things.... What else is left for me to do, outside of get hurt?

Like Arizona’s signing of Smith, the 49ers brought in 30-year-old O.J. Simpson, who was coming off knee surgery, partly to make a splash. On March 25, 1978, The Washington Post wrote, “O.J. Simpson struck gold in his hometown of San Francisco yesterday and did not have to run through an airport to get it.”

Eddie DeBartolo Jr.(49ers owner from 1977 to 2000): Joe Thomas was our general manager, and he needed p.r. because he was getting lambasted in San Francisco. He started talking to Buffalo, and he talked me into trading for O.J. I had just come into the league a year earlier, and it was really a giant mistake. O.J. was finished. His knees were gone, and he came to training camp, and he just didn’t have it. It was just a bad, bad trade and a mistake. And it was totally done for p.r. purposes.

In his prime, Simpson had picked up more than 2,000 yards in one season; with the 49ers, he needed two seasons to pick up a total of 1,000 yards. In his final NFL game, he carried the ball just twice for 12 yards.

DeBartolo: It’s been proven that some running backs change teams and get a new surge, a new lease on life. And some just can’t do it because they are out of gas.

Marcus Allen’s best season was with the Raiders in 1985, when he amassed 1,759 rushing yards and 2,314 yards from scrimmage, then an NFL record. But his relationship with owner Al Davis soured, perhaps after Allen’s five-week contract holdout in ’89, and his opportunities diminished. In a full 16-game season in ’92, his last year with the Raiders, he carried the ball just 67 times and aired his grievances to the nation during a Monday Night Football broadcast. At 33, Allen was free to sign with any team in 1993 as part of the NFL’s first free-agent class. He chose Joe Montana’s team—the Raiders’ greatest rival.

Carl Peterson(Chiefs president and general manager from 1989 to 2008): We played against [the Raiders] twice a year, and he was standing on the sideline most of the time, next to Art Shell, and that was because Al Davis didn’t want him to play. We knew there was still a lot of miles [left in] him. And frankly, one of the reasons he wanted to come to Kansas City was to play against Al twice a year. When I signed him, it was for three years, and he ended up playing five years for us.

He was an extraordinary running back; in his entire career, playing a very precarious position, he never really got [seriously] injured. He brought so much maturity and game preparation. I don’t know if I have ever seen a running back prepare like he did. He knew where the defense was going to be on the snap of the ball and had great ability to slide through small holes, jump over the top and, when necessary, go underneath. The best third-down, short-yardage and goal line runner I have ever encountered. Everybody knew he was going to get the ball, but they couldn’t stop him.

Allen’s biggest seasons were in his early days in L.A., but in his first season in Kansas City, he led the league in touchdowns (12) and the Chiefs went to the AFC championship game. He played until he was 37, leading Kansas City in rushing each year but his last.

Peterson: He’s certainly a huge exception. It was unfortunate for him his last couple years with the Raiders, the way they used him—or didn’t use him—and it was obviously a plus for us.

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The end can come suddenly, as it did for Franco Harris, Tony Dorsett and Thurman Thomas, who each played just one season on their new teams. After rushing for 1,007 yards during the 1983 season, the Steelers abruptly cut Harris on Aug. 20, 1984, to end a contract dispute, just 363 yards short of pro football’s all-time career rushing record. Three weeks later the Seahawks signed him to replace the injured Curt Warner. Harris’s stay in Seattle was short lived: On Oct. 30, after he’d rushed for 170 total yards in eight games, the Seahawks released him in what was described as a mutual parting of ways.

Harris: Because of the things that happened, being let go, it was hard to get involved mentally. Physically I felt great, but mentally I just couldn’t picture myself in my last year in a Seahawks uniform. I tried to come around, but it was a really difficult time for me. It is a tough game, and it just makes it that much more difficult when you try and talk your way into it. The organization, the coaches, the players—they were all great, and I wish I could have given a lot more. I guess I wasn’t ready for that transition.

Dorsett(played for Cowboys from 1977 to ’87 before joining Broncos for what turned out to be his last season; he rushed for 703 yards): To this day, I don’t even feel like I played for the Broncos. I just remember how strange it was, how I questioned myself many times, Why did I do this? It wasn’t, Did I still have it? I didn’t question that part of it. It was just questioning, Did they really want me? [He had nine games with 10 carries or fewer.] Then all of a sudden, things go wrong, you get injured, nick this or that, you can’t perform like everybody expects you to, the media gets in your face, you’re looking at the coaches, they are looking at you a little bit differently.... I don’t recommend it late in your career. As I’ve said, many times before, if I had to do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it. Finish up where you are.

Thomas(played for Bills from 1988 to ’99, then signed with Dolphins, where he had 136 rushing yards): It wasn’t all that different because I felt like I could still play. Being released by the Bills, it was not a good feeling. But going down to Miami, I knew those coaches from Oklahoma State, so the transition was very easy for me, even though it was a difficult decision to make. For my family, we were building a house in Orlando, so it made perfect sense for me to go down to Miami. I look back on it, and I would have made the same decision, no matter what. And if I didn’t hurt my knee, I probably would have played two or three more years.

Eric Dickerson only rushed 26 times for 91 yards as a Falcon.

Eric Dickerson only rushed 26 times for 91 yards as a Falcon.

Eric Dickerson, who ran for 10,000 yards in less time than anyone in history, was traded three times in his career. The first, in 1987, was a blockbuster, with the Los Angeles Rams sending him to the Colts in a three-team deal. In the summer of ’93, the Raiders sent him to the Falcons for a sixth-round draft pick. On Dickerson’s first touch in an Atlanta uniform, in a preseason game against Miami, he scored. But things went downhill from there. Coach Jerry Glanville says the doctors discovered Dickerson had an old neck injury, and he was hesitant to play him after that revelation, while Dickerson felt the team preferred to use younger players. He was deactivated for one game against San Francisco; he took a total of three carries in two others. In the middle of October, after a bizarre series of events in which Dickerson thought he’d been cut but hadn’t, the Falcons tried to trade him to the Packers. The trade was voided because of the neck injury. On Oct. 21, Dickerson announced he was retiring.

Glanville(coached Falcons from 1990 to ’93): I coached against him when he was with the Rams, I coached against him when he was with the Colts, and if you coached against Eric Dickerson when he was with the Rams or the Colts, you had a full-time job trying to stop him. He took a big, long stride, but he could fly. If he got in your secondary, we had a lot of people who just couldn’t catch him. When he was at those two places, he was the best back playing.

Dickerson: That last year, I didn’t like football anymore. I didn’t have a love for the game like when I first played. I still liked it, but I didn’t love it. I would say, it’s the ugly side of football; the business side, how cutthroat it is. That’s what I remember most, honestly.

Some running backs do not fade quietly into the night. Frank Gore had eight 1,000-yard seasons in San Francisco. He had a ninth last season in Indianapolis, at age 33. So much for running backs being over the hill after 30.

Gore(played for 49ers from 2005 to ’14, and for Colts since ’15): I felt like a rookie again [after signing with Indianapolis]. I was nervous. You are not comfortable anymore. You want to make the organization that brought you in feel that you are that guy they saw, that they heard about, when you come to practice and when you go on the field. That’s what I was trying to do.

I was trying to prove to my teammates how much I love the game and to do whatever it took to make plays, and it was hurting me. I had to just relax and be me. Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch, I know that they are going to go in trying to show everybody that they are A.D. All Day, and I’m Beast Mode. Sometimes you catch yourself pressing. They’ve just got to be them, the great ballplayers they are, and they’ll be good.

LaDainian Tomlinson had been the 2006 MVP and had won the NFL rushing title twice in the previous four years when he was cut by the Chargers in the winter of ’10. When deciding whether to sign the then 30-year-old, Jets coaches scoured film from his final seasons in San Diego. There’s an old adage with veteran players—Payton has used it when talking about Peterson—that while you don’t have to see “it” all the time, you do have to see “it.” Anthony Lynn, the current Chargers coach who was then the Jets running backs coach, needed to make sure Tomlinson still showed “it” before they would sign him.

Lynn: I had to go through a lot of games to conclude that he still had it. But once I see you make a hard cut and show burst and acceleration through the line of scrimmage, I know you can do it again. When elite players get toward the end of their careers, they may lose a step and their teams don’t value them the way they used to, but then you send them somewhere else and it lights a real fire. I like to get backs like that. You can be in one place for so long, think you are motivated and inspired, but you’ve gotten comfortable. Your team lets you go, and that wakes you up. Usually, your next team gets a good two years.

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Tomlinson didn’t put up the same sort of numbers in New York as he had in San Diego, but he was a key piece of the offense for two more years. Jets coaches envisioned him having a complementary role, but Tomlinson became a starter that first season, contributing more than 1,200 all-purpose yards.

Tomlinson: That was an important part of my career, because even then, I had to prove to myself that I was still good enough, and I’m sure I had to prove it to them. They probably looked at me when I first got there, [thinking] he is going to be the third-down guy, but I think they quickly saw, This is a guy who can still play.

During Hall of Fame weekend in August, Tomlinson named Peterson as a future Hall of Famer and Lynch as being on the cusp. A great season this year, Tomlinson suggested, could push Lynch over the edge.

Tomlinson: Those guys are veterans. They know about putting their head down and going to work, earning the respect of everybody in that organization, including the coaches. That’s what you have to do. When you go there, there is probably this perception of you already from an outside perspective, because they haven’t been around you. But it’s about creating realistic expectations for who you are going to be for that team. That’s what they need to do. Now maybe Adrian Peterson is not going to be who he was for the Minnesota Vikings, and I don’t think the Saints expect that, but at some point I think there has to be a realistic expectation for him and for that organization of what he is going to bring to that team. For Adrian, he has to come to the realization that this is where he is in his career, and embrace it. Embrace it.