With 10,057 yards in his rearview mirror and faith that his future will carry him past Emmitt Smith’s rushing record of 18,355, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson sat down with the Star Tribune this week to discuss the journey to this point and how far he thinks he and the Vikings can go, with or without an elite quarterback.
The reigning league MVP expressed frustration with his team’s current quarterback situation but insisted that winning a Super Bowl without an elite passer is possible because … well, with Adrian Lewis Peterson, anything is, always has been and always will be considered possible.
“I get that from my mom,” Peterson said with a smile.
Bonita Jackson gave Peterson more than his speed as a former track star who won Texas 3A state titles in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and triple jump in 1983. She also nurtured the mental strength that has carried Peterson through good times and bad. And tragic times that include an older brother killed by a drunken driver, a father jailed for money laundering in connection to drug dealing, a half-brother shot and killed on the eve of Peterson’s scouting combine workout and a 2-year-old son, whom Peterson had just been made aware of, beaten to death, allegedly by the boyfriend of the child’s mother, two months ago in South Dakota.
The first time Peterson touched a football in an organized game, he was 7 years old. He played for a Pop Warner team called the Oilers in Palestine, Texas.
“I can’t remember exactly what I did that day,” Peterson said. “But I do know I scored a couple of times. I was the running back. I’m always the running back.”
It wasn’t long before Peterson realized he wasn’t like any of the other kids. As a senior at Palestine High School, he rushed for 2,960 yards and 32 touchdowns, finishing his career off with 350 yards and six touchdowns before taking a seat at halftime.
“I really can’t say that I knew I was able to predict the future,” Peterson said. “But at a young age, I believed I’d be where I am now. I grew up a Cowboys fan and I’d always tell myself, ‘I’m going to make it to the pros.’ I looked past college and the process of getting to the NFL. I was totally stuck on, ‘I’m going to make it to the NFL and I’m going to be the best.’ ”
He’d often share those thoughts with Bonita.
“She was always positive,” Peterson said. “She was always encouraging me, saying, ‘Yeah, you can do it. You’re going to be the best.’ She was always telling me that those dreams — those Santa Claus dreams — will come true. I just always believed her.”
Tarvaris Jackson, Brooks Bollinger, Kelly Holcomb, Brett Favre, Joe Webb, a washed-up Donovan McNabb for six games, Gus Frerotte, Josh Freeman for one game, Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder. Those are the 10 quarterbacks Peterson has played with in seven seasons.
A look at that unimpressive list is telling. The only time in Peterson’s career that the Vikings have had an elite quarterback playing at an elite level was 2009 with Favre. That’s also the furthest the Vikings have advanced in Peterson’s career, going 12-4, winning the NFC North and reaching the NFC title game before being undone by turnovers that were out of character for the team that season.
This year, the Vikings (3-8-1) rank 25th in passing heading into Sunday’s game at Baltimore (6-6). Ponder, Freeman and Cassel, who will make his third start of the season Sunday, all have started games this season. Combined, they have 12 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions and a 75.1 passer rating that would rank 31st in the league.
Asked to describe his level of frustration with the quarterback situation, Peterson thought for a moment. He’s never been one to complain.
“It can be frustrating at times when it’s just not consistent at that position,” Peterson said. “It makes it harder on the run in a sense. … I think the play will pick up. I feel like we just need someone that can have the mind-set that they want to be a champion at the quarterback position.”
Asked if the Vikings need an elite quarterback to win the Super Bowl, even with him on the team, Peterson didn’t hesitate.
“I don’t necessarily think so,” he said. “We need someone who can manage the game. I feel like the quarterback of the team is someone who just needs to manage and get the job done. But I would surely expect that person to go in with the mind-set of, ‘Hey, I’m the leader of this team.’ The same mind-set that I have. I feel like that would be the best solution.”
Wasting his talents?
Peterson has 3,305 yards rushing in his past 28 regular-season games. But as a team, the Vikings are 13-14-1 in those 28 games. He was asked whether his greatness has been wasted on a team that can’t find a franchise quarterback to help him.
“I’m not going to say that,” he said. “You look at this year. We could have a totally different record. We could be getting ready for the postseason if things would have gone just a little different in a couple of games. So I’m not going to sit here and say I feel my talent is being wasted here. There are guys on this team that I feel like can help us get to a championship. All the pieces have to be right, but, no, I don’t feel like my talent is getting wasted.”
Look out, Emmitt
In 2000, Robert Smith ran for 1,521 yards for what was then a Vikings team record. Peterson is on pace to top that mark twice in back-to-back seasons after major surgery to repair torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee.
Peterson had 2,097 yards — second-most in NFL history behind Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 — and 1,208 this year. At his current pace this year, Peterson would finish with 1,611, which would be the most ever by a running back the year after rushing for 2,000 yards.
For his career, Peterson is 8,299 yards from surpassing Emmitt Smith’s league record. At his current pace — 99.6 yards per game — Peterson would need 84 more games to do it. Assuming the league maintains its 16-game schedule, that projects to the 2018 season finale. Peterson would be 33.
“I’ll get there sooner,” Peterson said. “Why? Just because of my determination. Not because I have that as a set goal that I’m trying to reach. It’s something I want to reach. I definitely want Emmitt’s record. But it’s not continuously on my mind.
“What’s going to get me there is God’s willingness for me staying healthy, first and foremost, and my work ethic. It’s really working your body. The body can do so much, but you got to be able to push it to discover what it can really do.”
Who’s the best, Coach?
One of Peterson’s biggest fans is Vikings coach Leslie Frazier. But, sorry, Adrian, Frazier can only go so far in his praise. The greatest running back of all time, at least in Frazier’s mind, is Walter Payton, Frazier’s former teammate with the Bears.
“[Frazier] tells me how I remind him of Walter, how we have some of the same style and how close I am to being better than Walter was,” Peterson said. “He’s kind of biased because they played together. But I’m only in my seventh year. Walter played 13 years. I’m able to respect the years he put in and what he did. So being that close to Walter Payton? I can live with that.”
Asked who he thinks is the best running back of all time, Peterson said, “Barry Sanders. And Walter Payton.”
Sorry, Adrian. You only get one pick.
“But they got different styles,” he said. “And some people say Jim Brown. But I put Jim Brown on a different level because it’s a different era than Walter Payton and Barry Sanders.
“Walter Payton, he ran the ball like me: physical, fast, could beat you with speed and power. But Barry Sanders was just so nice with it. I got to go with Barry Sanders.”
Who’s the fastest running back Peterson has seen?
“Probably Bo Jackson,” Peterson said.
“Earl Campbell,” Peterson said.
Best combination of power and speed?
“Walter Payton,” Peterson said.
Where do you think you rank on those three lists?
A smile that says it all.
“I’m trailing right now,” Peterson said. “But, God willing, if I stay healthy, I can lead the whole pack.”