The game clock was ticking well under two minutes remaining and Adrian Peterson was on the sideline with 293 yards rushing. He hadn’t unbuckled this shoulder pads, but the rookie’s day presumably was over with the Vikings leading the San Diego Chargers 35-17 at the Metrodome on Nov. 4, 2007.
Peterson had just ripped the Chargers again with a 35-yard run, giving him 250 yards in the second half alone. Peterson’s backup, Chester Taylor, was on the field taking a handoff for 6 more yards as the game clock ticked toward one minute remaining.
“I had no idea I was close to the record,” said Peterson, whose Vikings will play host to the Chargers on Sunday for the first time since that game eight years ago.
Meanwhile, up in the press box sat Bob Hagan. The Vikings executive director of public relations knew exactly where Peterson stood. He was 2 yards shy of the single-game mark of 295 that Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis set four years earlier against Cleveland.
“I have the monitor right there in front of me,” Hagan said. “So I sent [assistant director of public relations] Tom West upstairs to tell the coaches. Good thing it wasn’t a close game because that’s not something you do when it’s 23-20.”
Good thing the Metrodome was a simple building with only a short flight of stairs between the media and the coaching boxes. West hustled, the coaches relayed the info via headset to the sideline and, well, the rest became history a short time later.
“I forget who sidled up to me and told me Adrian was close to the record,” then-head coach Brad Childress said by phone this week. “When you’re in the moment, you’re not sharpening your pencil. You’re trying to win the game. It was good that we had him out of the game at that point. He had just had that long run.”
Childress tapped Peterson on the shoulder and sent him back in for one more carry. With 1:04 left, Peterson took the handoff from Brooks Bollinger, got exactly the 3 yards he needed and watched as Bollinger took a knee to end the game.
Some have suggested the rushing record might have begun to fall Friday night in downtown Minneapolis.
“My recollection is San Diego came in two days early and were out on Friday night [past curfew] and all that stuff,” Childress said. “You can ask Norv [Turner] about that stuff. He was up close and personal with that.”
Turner, the Vikings offensive coordinator, was in his first year as Chargers head coach. Players breaking curfew had reportedly become an issue on multiple occasions under his predecessor, Marty Schottenheimer, so Turner had started a policy of staying in hotels the night before home games and traveling to away games two days early.
It’s unknown publicly how many players broke curfew on the streets of Minneapolis that night. But news of players being fined for it — something that rarely happened under Schottenheimer — leaked out. On Nov. 11, 2007, a week after one of San Diego’s worst performances in recent memory, director of security Mike Cash, the man who was responsible for policing the curfew, was fired after only six months on the job.
The perception of an undisciplined program wasn’t good for Turner. But who knows how much of a factor that played in the game. And Turner did reach the AFC Championship Game later that season.
The Chargers certainly weren’t tired against the Vikings in the first half, which ended with San Diego setting an NFL record.
“You want to know my most vivid memory of that game?” Childress asked. “Antonio Cromartie returning our missed [57-yard] field goal 109 yards to set the record and give them the [14-7] lead as time ran out in the first half. That was a lesson about good intentions of kicking a long field goal with a good field goal kicker and not-great coverage guys.”
Ted’s ‘perfect storm’
Ted Cottrell was the Chargers defensive coordinator, the same position he held under Mike Tice with the Vikings two years earlier.
For two quarters, Cottrell’s defense held Peterson to 43 yards on 13 carries (3.3), including a 1-yard touchdown run. And the following week, Cottrell’s defense returned to its stingy ways as San Diego turned a 4-4 start into a 7-1 run.
Cottrell’s defense finished fifth in points allowed (17.8) that season. It held the Patriots to 21 points at New England in the conference title game, but the offense fell short with quarterback Philip Rivers, running back LaDainian Tomlinson (two carries) and tight end Antonio Gates (two catches) all playing hurt. Tomlinson, the reigning league MVP that year, had only 40 yards on 16 carries the day Peterson set the record.
So what happened in the second half on Nov. 4, 2007?
“It was the perfect storm,” Cottrell said.
Key injuries at each level of the defense undid the Chargers’ 3-4 scheme. The first blow was outside linebacker Shaun Phillips being inactive because of a groin injury. Physical cornerback Quentin Jammer left in the first half because of a hamstring injury. And the most damaging blow came early in the third quarter when end Luis Castillo, the team’s best at setting the edge of the defense, went down because of an ankle injury.
“What happened in the second half is Castillo got hurt,” Cottrell said. “That really hurt.”
Before Castillo went down, Peterson had 49 yards and a 1-yard touchdown on 14 carries. With Castillo out, Peterson had 247 yards and touchdowns of 64 and 46 yards on 16 carries. Overall he averaged 9.9 yards a carry with nine carries of 10 yards or more, including eight in the second half.
Turning heads early
Ask Childress when Peterson’s greatness first jumped out at him and he will reference a 5-10, 170-pound quarterback whose name he couldn’t remember.
“We nicknamed him Jimmy Neutron,” said Childress, referring to Jimmy Terwilliger, who set 17 NCAA Division II passing records at East Stroudsburg (Pa.).
“Right after the draft, we had the rookie minicamp. And you have free agents in for the weekend tryouts. And this little quarterback from East Stroudsburg, I can remember watching him have to absolutely work his butt off just to get out fast enough to make a simple stretch handoff to Adrian. Just watching Adrian that weekend in our building, my recollection was kind of like, ‘Wow. That looks different than I’ve seen before.’ ”
Peterson turned a screen pass into a 60-yard touchdown in his NFL debut. In his fifth game, he ran for 224 yards on 20 carries at Chicago.
He had played only 7½ NFL games when he trotted to the locker room at halftime of the Chargers game. That’s when running backs coach Eric Bieniemy started screaming at him to trust one particular stretch run play called “G Boss.”
“In the first half, I kept cutting it back inside,” Peterson said. “EB got on me and got me straight. I started trusting it. It really didn’t look clean, but I just kept pressing it and we kept gutting them with that outside zone.”
Peterson got the record but still wonders how far he could have pushed the mark. Taylor had five of the team’s final seven carries, including a 34-yarder, and finished with 60 yards on nine carries.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Peterson said. “I look back and think, ‘Man, I could have been the first guy to go over 300.’ At the end of the day it wasn’t meant to happen. But I’ll say this: If I get close to 296 or 300 again, I will be asking for it next time.”
Like old times
Peterson is coming off a 29-carry, 134-yard effort against Detroit that he said felt like old times for the first time since he missed 15 games to deal with child-abuse charges last season. He touched the ball 31 times after getting only 13 in the loss to San Francisco the week before.
“Bodywise, I really was able to get my body broke in this game,” Peterson said. “So my body really took a pounding. So I kind of built up that callus over the entire body. I’m sure guys will be bouncing off me a little more this Sunday.”
Peterson is the only Vikings offensive player left from that game eight years ago. Safety Eric Weddle is the only Chargers defender left. And yet Peterson sounds like he expects San Diego to use that game eight years ago as motivation on Sunday.
“I’ve been telling the guys, ‘Be ready for a fight,’ ” Peterson said. “It’s famine, famine … feast!”