With a once-in-a-generation talent such as Adrian Peterson in the backfield, one might assume that all Vikings running backs coach Kirby Wilson has to do is roll out the footballs before practice and point Peterson in the direction of the right end zone.
And maybe grab the NFL’s leading rusher a cup of Gatorade if he is thirsty.
But if Wilson has learned one thing coaching NFL running backs, including a pair of Hall of Famers in Emmitt Smith and Curtis Martin, it is that some running backs have big egos and don’t want to be coached. But most of the time, the great ones do.
“And Adrian fits into that category,” said Wilson, in his second year in Minnesota.
Wilson would be the first person to say that Peterson deserves most of the credit for his successful return to the NFL. But Wilson’s attention to preparation during the week and the self-assuredness to be hands-off on Sundays and just let Peterson go out and do his thing has played a role in his re-establishing himself with authority.
Peterson has rushed for 961 yards, 227 more than the next guy on the NFL’s rushing list, and five touchdowns in the Vikings’ 7-2 start. He will be looking to make it four consecutive games with a rushing total in triple digits during Sunday’s showdown against the 6-3 Green Bay Packers at TCF Bank Stadium.
“[Wilson is] a great guy and an even better coach,” Peterson said. “His teaching style is effective. He’s like a brother, man. It’s been fun so far. Kirby, he’s a great coach. He’s laid-back.”
Wilson loves life, has a sense of humor and is quick to engage in a conversation.
The 54-year-old has always looked for silver linings, though for him they were not hard to find. Fortune has been in his favor professionally, as he worked his way from Pasadena City College in California to the NFL, where he won Super Bowl rings as the running backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In January of 2012, though, Wilson nearly died in a fire in his suburban Pittsburgh condominium. A grease fire broke out in the kitchen as Wilson snoozed on the couch. When he awoke, he was already surrounded by smoke and, disoriented, he stumbled into the fire before finding a flight of stairs and making it outside.
Wilson suffered severe lung damage and second- and third-degree burns on nearly 50 percent of his body. After being airlifted to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, he was placed in an induced coma for several days and spent 45 days in intensive care.
Eight months later, he was back coaching the Steelers at the start of training camp.
“Anybody that knows Kirb knows that Kirb is going to bounce back if something doesn’t go his way,” said Jerick McKinnon, who thrived under Wilson as a rookie last season.
Leave it to Wilson to turn a harrowing ordeal like that into something positive.
“I’ve always enjoyed life. But it was just another validation that you have to enjoy each and every day,” Wilson said. “You’re not here for a long time. You’re here for a good time. So do the right things and good things will happen for you.”
After two more seasons with the Steelers, including tutoring Le’Veon Bell in his rookie year, Wilson left Pittsburgh in 2014. He interviewed for the vacant offensive coordinator job in Baltimore, but Gary Kubiak got that job. So Wilson agreed to join the staff of new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and coach a perennial Pro Bowler.
Peterson, named the NFL’s FedEx Ground Player of the Week for his 203 yards rushing in Oakland, played only one game before getting banned by the NFL. During much of that time, the coaching staff was not permitted to be in contact with Peterson. So it wasn’t until this spring that Wilson and Peterson were able to re-establish their connection.
Wilson’s mantra is “Let the preparation take care of itself.” During the practice week, he keeps a close eye on Peterson and the rest of the running backs, making sure to hammer home that they practice with the proper technique.
“He stays on their rear ends to make sure they’re doing things right,” Zimmer said.
But when Sunday rolls around, Wilson encourages them to go out there and be themselves.
“ ‘Do what you do.’ I feel like that’s the best advice you can give someone,” Peterson said.
It is working for Peterson, who has rushed for 117.8 yards per game during the team’s five-game winning streak.
“He’s on a pretty good roll right now,” Wilson said. “When you get hot and get in a groove, you start to see beyond the first block and he’s at that point right now in his game. I think as long as it’s there, we’ll see big games out of it.”