Numbers sometimes lie, but usually they don’t. Adrian Peterson is back after his injury problems to lead the Minnesota Vikings to a 5-2 record, looking at times like the best running back in the NFL, which he was before the injuries. How good? Maybe even Barry Sanders good?
To some, including myself, Barry Sanders is the greatest running back in NFL History. Only 10 seasons in the NFL, playing on a decent Detroit Lions team, taking them 5 times into the playoffs without having much of a offensive line to protect him. Just incredible ability in carrying the ball and making the most of every hole he found in the defense.
Peterson’s numbers through the first 73 games of his career: 6752 yards, 4.8 yards per carry, 64 touchdowns with 27 games of over 100 yards. Sanders through his first 73 games: 6789 yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 55 touchdowns with 30 games of over 100 yards. Eerily similar.
The incredible thing about Sanders’ career wasn’t its abrupt ending because he felt the Lions weren’t committed to winning, but that he got better during the second half of it. He ran for 1883, 1500, 1553, 2053 and 1491 yards from 1994-1998. He was never much of a touchdown machine (never more than 11 in that five year stretch), but he would get yards every time he touched the ball, averaging 6.1 per carry in the 1997 season, joining the 2000 club.
And here’s the question about Peterson. Can he sustain, let alone improve his ability over the next five years? Most would say that’s impossible. Not because Peterson wasn’t that good to begin with, but because there’s something that isn’t as smooth and clean as it was before the toll of life as running back in the NFL became a bit too much for him. He’s still got speed, but something has been lost somewhere. He runs with a bit more power now, but something of the explosiveness is gone.
Sanders was truly a remarkable case of talent and the ability to mostly stay healthy in the most grinding position in football, and actually get better with time. The NFL has changed, and Peterson doesn’t get as many touches as Sanders used to get. It’s a passing league, and although he’s the Vikings biggest weapon, they’re being careful with his touches. The best running back in the NFL today? Possibly, although that opinion shifts every other weekend. As good as Barry Sanders was? It’s hard predicting the future, but an educated guesser would have to say no.