- Cast off by three teams in 12 months, the future Hall of Fame back was in the wilderness, searching for another chance and considered washed up by most of the NFL’s best and brightest. Then he got his shot in Washington in August, and his resurgence has been one of the stories of the season’s first half. Oh yeah—he says there’s plenty more in the tank
ASHBURN, Va. — For less than $100—and maybe half that if you can get the discount code—you can train just like Adrian Peterson.
The virtual fitness plan features speed drills, strength training, motivational advice from Peterson and a library of how-to videos you can access any day, any time you want. “Now he and his longtime trainer are revealing some of the most powerful exercises to help you realize your own greatness within,” the site tells you.
But that’s as far as it will tease, because going any further would insult you and, more importantly, the greatness of Peterson. It never says you can be like Adrian. No one can.
He’s 33 years old and fifth in the league in rushing, with 604 yards, halfway through the 2018 season. No one older than 27 is within 100 yards of him. The closest 30-plus-year-old is Frank Gore with 438. If Peterson stays healthy, he could realistically finish the 2018 season in sixth place on the all-time rushing list.
A dozen players have rushed for more than 1,000 yards in multiple seasons after turning 30. If and when Peterson reaches 1,000 this season, he’ll just add to the list. It probably won’t even be the most statistically impressive season for a 33-or-older running back in franchise history after 34-year-old John Riggins’ first-team All-Pro season for Washington in 1983.
Two things set Peterson apart. First, he lost multiple years to knee injuries and suspension. Second, pretty much everyone thought Peterson was washed up. In March 2017 the Vikings cut ties with him after 10 seasons, choosing not to pick up his $18 million option. He signed with the Saints in April, only be traded four games into the season to Arizona. New Orleans was an obvious bad fit (Peterson had 27 carries for 81 yards, total, in his four games with the Saints), and while he flashed some of his old magic with the Cardinals, his season was shut down after Week 12 due to a neck injury. Arizona released him in March 2018.
Peterson was damaged goods, so the thinking went, when Washington brought him in for a look in August. His preseason debut was promising but, the thinking went, he’d come back to earth when the season started. He had a good game in Week 1, but he couldn’t keep it going. Now, midway through the season, he’s an integral part of the offense for a division-leading team.
Not only that, he’s focused on more than just 1,000. “My mind is bigger than that. I feel like at this mark, 2,000 is still reachable,” Peterson says. “Easily. That’s just how I think.”
What’s more impressive? A 41-year-old Tom Brady playing in today’s NFL, or a 33-year-old running back with an untold number of hits to his body. Here are the injuries Peterson has suffered since 2010 that have caused him to miss games: LCL sprain, hamstring pull, high ankle sprain, ACL tear, sports hernia, foot sprain, meniscus tear, groin strain, neck injury.
I ask him to count up the hits, the collective toll on his body, over his career. He’s had 3,096 touches—rushes and receptions—in the regular season and playoffs since entering the league in 2007. “Go ahead and double that easily,” he says of the impossible math on the number of blows he’s taken. It’s not just the hits at the line or the broken tackles. In his mind he starts thinking of the cut blocks, the blitz pickups, diving for loose balls. He arrives at a number finally.
“I’d say probably close to as many yards as I have,” Peterson says. That would amount to more than 15,000, all told.
Peterson spent his unemployment this offseason at his Houston gym, OAthletik, which he co-owns with former Oklahoma Sooner and current Washington offensive tackle Trent Williams. He worked with his longtime trainer, James Cooper, on the underwater treadmills in the gym in Texas, and in the mountain air in Lake Tahoe. After God, it’s Cooper whom Peterson expects to look after his body most closely.
There’s a hill at the gym that has become stuff of legend to fellow Washington running back (and Sooner) Samaje Perine. He can’t imagine doing reps up and down the hill today at age 23, much less a decade older. Peterson is proud to tell stories of how he regularly beats 20-year-olds in workouts. “We normally do reps of 20, and I’m normally winning 95% of them,” Peterson starts. “Or 98. I want to say 98. I don’t want to give them more.”
But workouts or no, the toll on his body continues. Peterson had to pop his shoulder back into place in Week 5 after dislocating it, and he usually takes Wednesdays off from practice. In meeting rooms he regularly has some new-age recovery tool attached to his body and gets teased by his teammates and staff.
“You got that stuff you can’t even go buy yet!” Randy Jordan, the Washington running backs coach, will tell Peterson.
It was the offseason work and recovery methods that helped Peterson put up a performance in August that Washington couldn’t ignore. With first-round pick Derrius Guice out for the season with a torn ACL, Washington had Peterson and two other running backs in for workouts. Jordan wanted to test Peterson—“I literally was trying to hurt him,” he says—with a ton of agility and change-of-direction drills.
The younger players would welcome a pull from the water bottle during a breather. When presented with a bottle, Peterson waved it off, spit out some tobacco juice from the chew he had in and told the coach he was good.
Peterson won the job, but his pride took a hit. Three years ago he signed a three-year, $42 million extension with the Vikings. After they let him walk in 2017, he inked a two-year, $7 million deal with the Saints. Now he was signing a one-year contract for the veteran minimum: $1.015 million, for the best running back of a generation.
“It got to a point where hey, shoot, if I got to play for free just to show that I still got it, I’ll go play. That’s the love I have for the game,” Peterson says. “I’m sure after this season, God willing, I’ll have the opportunity to make more than the bare minimum.”
Peterson gave it a little extra in Week 1 against the Cardinals. He thought he’d filled in well enough for the injured David Johnson in 2017 that Arizona would keep him as Johnson’s 2018 backup, and he had mentally prepared for that role. But the Cardinals dumped him, and Peterson wandered the NFL wilderness for months wondering where he could fit—Baltimore? Denver? Maybe Pittsburgh?—before Washington called.
He felt wronged by Arizona, and it showed: He rushed for 96 yards on 26 carries and added 70 receiving yards in a 24-6 win. Coach Jay Gruden gave him the game ball.
“When you find situations when it seems like the world is against you and no one believes in you and everyone doubts you, that’s when you rise to the occasion,” says 34-year-old Washington tight end Vernon Davis. “And you don’t do it totally for the simple fact to make a point. You do it because you know in your heart you can do it. Despite what anyone has to say about you, you’re going to come through.
“The most resilient and successful people in this world had to go through that. That’s what I see in Adrian. That’s what I see in Serena Williams and LeBron James.”
It wasn’t just Arizona that had doubted Peterson. Before that August 20 workout you would have been hard-pressed to find an NFL decision-maker willing to take on Peterson. Peter King reported this week that Washington would have signed Orleans Darkwa the day before Peterson’s workout had Darkwa agreed to the veteran minimum.
Cris Carter and Shannon Sharpe publicly doubted Peterson before the season. Peterson lashed out at both and has since received an apology from Carter. I had my doubts about Peterson, too, figuring he still had enough burst for a game or two but would eventually flame out. So far he’s eclipsed the 90-yard rushing mark five times this season.
“This should be a lesson to all those people, everybody else out there who doubts people with their age,” cornerback Josh Norman says. “Sit down, take some notes and watch greatness as it unfolds.”
But Peterson has been folded up this year, too. In Washington’s three losses, Peterson has rushed for 43 yards on 24 rushes. He was bottled up for just 17 yards last Sunday against Atlanta.
Still, he’s on pace for his first 1,000-yard season since 2015. Peterson has overtaken Marshall Faulk, Tony Dorsett and Jim Brown on the all-time rushing list this season, and, at 12,880 career yards, may catch Erik Dickerson, LaDainian Tomlinson and Jerome Bettis by the end of the year.
What he wants is Emmitt Smith’s record. Smith rushed for 18,355 career yards, leaving Peterson 5,475 yards shy of the mark. Sitting on a couch outside Washington’s locker room, Peterson and I haggle over what an appropriate per-season average would be for him to reach the record. I give him 100 yards a game for the rest of this year and 1,000 yards per season after that. He’s insulted.
We arrive at 1,500 rushing yards per year, meaning he would need to play in 2022 at age 37 to surpass Smith. “Without a doubt,” Peterson says. “I think it’s feasible.”
He thinks often about his lost years. He missed the final four games of 2011 when he tore his ACL. He spent all but one game in 2014 on suspension after being charged with felony child abuse when he disciplined his 4-year-old son with a switch. Peterson ended up pleading no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault, apologized and was eventually reinstated by the league. And in 2016 he missed 13 games with a torn meniscus.
That’s 32 games—two full seasons—where he didn’t get any yards but kept getting older. “Let’s just say I got 1,000 yards a season,” Peterson says, almost disgusted with himself at the thought. “Just say 1,000.”
You’d be knocking at Emmitt’s door soon enough, I tell him.
“Helloooo,” Peterson says, pantomiming a knock.
In Week 8 against the Giants, Peterson returned to human form. Up 10-3 with a minute left in the third quarter, he fumbled for the first time this season as Washington drove into the red zone.
Gruden barked at Jordan, and Jordan was ready to lay into Peterson. It doesn’t matter how quickly you’ll enter Canton after you retire—Jordan is not going to tolerate fumbling. So as Peterson walked toward his position coach on the sideline, Jordan was weaving a tapestry of obscenities in his head.
They locked eyes, and Jordan saw this stare from Peterson. He’d seen it before, last season, when Peterson had his sideline flare-up with Saints coach Sean Payton on Monday Night Football. But the stare had never been directed at him, and he felt now something in his soul. Before Jordan could drop his first f-bomb, Peterson spoke. Or, rather, he screamed in Jordan’s face…
Jordan understood that nothing he could say would make Peterson feel worse than he already did, and backed off. Then, Peterson begged to get the ball back. In the fourth quarter he would carry 10 times for 107 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown run with 3:16 left to seal the win. It was the longest TD run by a player 33 years or older since Jim Thorpe went 80 yards for a score, in 1921.
After the win, some of the younger running backs teased Jordan. Coach, all I got to do is yell like that and you won’t cuss me out?
“Nah, dog,” Jordan told them. “It ain’t for everybody.”
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