Whoever he was calling himself on Thursday, the chiseled athlete in the purple No. 28 jersey took his weekly spot behind the makeshift podium in the Vikings’ Winter Park locker room.
“No,” he said. “I’m just Adrian today.”
Just Adrian Peterson. Not the “LeBron James of football,” which Peterson called himself in training camp when Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles claimed the title for himself first. Not the “Michael Jordan of football,” as Peterson playfully told the Kansas City media on Wednesday as a way of sharing the big stage with the injured Charles, who is out for the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee last Sunday.
Just Adrian Peterson. Just your average 6-1, 220-pounder leading the NFL in rushing yards per game (93.0). Just your average workhorse 30-year-old whose average per carry through four games (5.0) matches his career average through 108 games over nine seasons.
“I definitely feel fresher,” said Peterson, who missed 15 games a year ago as he dealt with charges of child abuse. “Any time you’re out a year, especially at my position, you’re going to come back feeling fresher. My body had to get used the pounding again. The body feels rejuvenated, fresh. I’m just ready to finish off what we started.”
The Vikings sure hope so. They are feeding Peterson an average of 18.8 carries through four games. That’s nearly one carry below his career average (19.7), but only Chicago’s Matt Forte, whose average through five games is 20.4, has a higher average per game.
Forte, 29, and Peterson aren’t the only guys striking a blow for the league’s older backs. In fact, five of the league’s top 10 in carries are older than 28, the magic number for when backs normally drop off. Frank Gore (32), Justin Forsett (30) and Chris Johnson (30) are Peterson’s fellow 30-somethings in the top 10 leaders in carries.
“I would just give all of them credit to their work ethic,” Peterson said when asked about the old guard. “Obviously, when you’re older, you got to stay on top of your game. Make sure you are sharp and you’re able to get out there and carry the load if it calls for it.”
Peterson is on pace for 300 carries. He’s played a full 16-game schedule only three times. He had 363 carries in 2008, 348 when he won league MVP in 2012 and 314 in 2009.
Peterson returns to TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday as the Vikings (2-2) come off their bye week to face the Chiefs (1-4). The Vikings are 2-0 at home mostly because of their running game and defense. In those two games, Peterson had 49 carries for 260 yards (5.3) and two touchdowns.
Asked how many carries he would consider the perfect workload to produce rhythm without exhaustion, Peterson said, “I don’t know. I really haven’t kind of thought about it like that.”
But then Peterson’s competitive side kicked in.
“Thirty, 40 carries?” said the man whose career high for carries is 35 set against the Bears in 2013. “Not to be greedy. Or sound greedy. I love what I do.”
Peterson is even trying to love his pass protection duties. The coaching staff says he’s working hard at it, but there are still growing pains, such as whiffing on the block that led to the strip, sack and lost fumble that clinched the 23-20 loss at Denver with 29 seconds left.
Asked what he’s learned in nine seasons about the importance of pass protection for a running back, Peterson admitted, “It was a little different for me, to be honest with you.”
“You always hear coaches say, ‘If you don’t block, then you’re not going to play,’ ” Peterson added. “I don’t think I was the guy who fit that. If I didn’t block, I was still going to play.”
“You definitely learn that you want to protect the quarterback,” Peterson said. “Those guys are your prized possession. With a guy like Teddy — and I’m not going to go back — but I have even more of an emphasis on making sure Teddy is protected when I’m out there. But it has always been important.”
But let’s face it, history won’t judge Peterson on his pass protection. In NFL history, only Jim Brown (104.3) and Barry Sanders (99.8) have averaged more yards rushing per game than Peterson (97.8).
In yards per carry, Peterson’s 5.0 is tied for fifth among running backs. Marion Motley (5.7) is first, followed by Charles (5.5), Brown (5.2) and Mercury Morris (5.1). Peterson is tied with Sanders, Joe Perry and Gale Sayers.
Motley, Brown, Sanders, Perry and Sayers are Hall of Famers. Peterson and Charles would have met Sunday if not for last week’s injury to Charles. Peterson said he was looking forward to the matchup.
“There are not many backs that I’ll watch and go like, ‘Wow, that was nice,’ ” Peterson said. “But when I watch him, there are different cuts and different moves that he puts on guys that makes me realize that I still have to be on top of my game.”
“It sounds like he’s someone different every day,” Vikings receiver Mike Wallace joked. “All I know is as a football player, he’s Adrian Peterson.”