Guest columnist: If this is it for Adrian Peterson, how do we assess his legacy?

Clark Judge

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Each weekend during the offseason a guest columnist weighs in with thoughts on the NFL -- past, present or future. Today it's frequent contributor and historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal assessing the career of running back Adrian Peterson, released by Washington this week.)

A free agent at the age of 35, running back Adrian Peterson may have reached the end of his NFL career. So let’s say that it's true; that this is it. What is his legacy?

All one needed to do was watch him run with the football to know he was special. Physically he stood out, and his strength and speed were obvious on film. Nothing sublime about it.

However, we are living in a highlight generation where athletes are often judged on their best plays or amazing physical prowess, and sometimes that can obscure the true value of a player because it is only one aspect of a career.

Peterson’s career and his legacy were captured not only on film but in how often he was honored by All-Pro and MVP voters … not to mention defenders paid to stop him. His legacy was full of countless highlights but also rare in terms of statistics, honors and the number of testimonials.

Adrian Peterson was the complete package.

“I'd probably say he's the best back that I've played against,“ linebacker Clay Matthews told ESPN. “There's some very good ones in the league right now, but just overall—his body of work and what he's capable of doing, not only between the tackles but on the outside, too. He presents a problem for defenses.

Consider this: All-Pro teams are difficult for players to make, especially at offensive skill positions because there is so much emphasis on the numbers and so much competition that many running backs and even quarterbacks were All-Pro less often than many fans realize.

Adrian Peterson was a five-time All-Pro (four of those consensus-making the majority or all of the major All-Pro teams in a given season) and twice more a second-team All-Pro.

"That's definitely a guy I watched growing up,” said Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott. “Probably the best back I've seen since I've played."

In 2012 Peterson was the NFL consensus MVP and was voted to the 2010s’ all-decade Team. He also led the NFL in rushing yards three times and four times led the NFL in rushing yards per game. So, how many NFL running backs have at least three NFL rushing titles, been a four-time (or more) consensus All-Pro, won an MVP and were all-decade?

Five -- Peterson and Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. All but Peterson are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Peterson is one of only seven runners to gain 2,000 or more yards in a season, and his 2,097 in 2012 are second only to Hall-of-Famer Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 in 1984. 

Most fans know he’s fifth all-time in rushing yards and fourth all-time in rushing touchdowns, and those numbers alone make him a Hall of Famer. But there are 33 modern-day running backs in the Hall, and it is Peterson’s other achievements that put him among the elite of the elite.

His legacy will be as the best running back of his era and easily among the top 15 of all time. But his rank is higher, maybe much higher, when one considers his comebacks from injuries and other intangibles.

Adrian Peterson is more than a Hall of Famer. He’s among the best of the best.

Comments (4)
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brian wolf
brian wolf

A great talent and considered a Gayle Sayers type of instinctive back, at least in the open field, with his explosive long runs.

While Payton and Brown set the standard for great running backs, they also had flaws like Peterson, or Sanders of Smith ...

Like Peterson, Payton could fumble but wasnt criticized too much because he was always making second and third efforts to continue a play, while Jim Brown was an unwilling blocker.

Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders werent utilized in the passing game enough, and Peterson wasnt a great receiver, while Sanders also had too much negative yardage.

Payton and Smith were more complete backs with their blocking ability ... Imagine how many scrimmage yards Peterson could have had with more committment to the passing game ?

Like Brown, he probably used his pass blocking opportunities to get proper rest but is still one of the greatest backs who ever played ...

In an era where defenders run and cover more than they tackle, Peterson like Lynch in Seattle, relished the chance to take defenders on ...


Great article on a great runner & future HOFer...outside of being on a SB team he has done it of 8 unanimous 2010 all decade selections...if he does call it a career Canton will be waiting, though for me he wouldn't be 1st ballot...I have always felt that if you have been suspended you can still get in, but not 1st ballot...I know off the field not supposed to affect voting, but if your suspended your affecting your team on the field...Obviously was one of the greatest ever.


certainly will be first ballot PFHOFer, but for me he doesn't fall in my top10 RBs of all time: Brown, Sanders, Payton, Emmitt, Dickerson, Simpson,Faulk, Tomlinson, Sayers, Campbell (or Dorsett)

brian wolf
brian wolf

If Stafford can stay healthy, hopefully he will utilize Peterson out of the backfield as a receiver ... The Lions can benefit allowing Peterson to work on being a better blocker and receiver as he gets a feel for the offensive line.

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