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Placing Adrian Peterson into Historical Context

Simple questions often produce complicated answers. Thanks to some subjective criteria and a loaded field, this one is no different … but just how good is Adrian Peterson?

YOU know Adrian Peterson. You watch him multiple times a year and are inundated with commercials and highlight reels of him. I don’t need to set the mood with a meandering preamble about just how awesome he is, so I’ll start off instead with some relevant charts.

Here is where Peterson ranks historically in yards-per-attempt among all running backs with at least 900 carries*:

Rank RB Tenure Y/A Total Attempts
1 Jamaal Charles 2008- 5.58 1043
2 Jim Brown 1957-1965 5.22 2359
3 Joe Perry 1948-1963 5.04 1929
4 Gale Sayers 1965-1971 5.00 991
5 Barry Sanders 1989-1998 4.99 3062
6 Adrian Peterson 2007- 4.98 2033
7 Napoleon Kaufman 1995-2000 4.90 978
8 Paul Lowe 1960-1969 4.87 1026
9 Lenny Moore 1956-1967 4.84 1069
10 DeAngelo Williams 2006- 4.83 1370

Other notables in the top-25 were LeSean McCoy (13), Tiki Barber (18), Hugh McElhenny (19), O.J. Simpson (20), Fred Taylor (22), Terrell Davis (23), and Priest Holmes (25). Hall-of-Famers in the top-100 included Steve Van Buren (42), Eric Dickerson (44), Jim Taylor (45), Ollie Matson (46), Walter Payton (49), Tony Dorsett (54), Marshall Faulk (56), John Henry Johnson (57), Earl Campbell (63), Larry Csonka (72), Leroy Kelly (82), Thurman Thomas (85), and Emmitt Smith (94). Franco Harris, Marcus Allen, and Curtis Martin just barely crossed the four-yard threshold.

Here’s where “All Day” already falls in terms of raw yardage and touchdowns:

Rank RB Tenure Total Yards Yards/Game
1 Emmitt Smith 1990-2004 18355 81.2
2 Walter Payton 1975-1987 16726 88.0
3 Barry Sanders 1989-1998 15269 99.8
4 Curtis Martin 1995-2005 14101 83.9
5 LaDainian Tomlinson 2001-2011 13684 80.5
6 Jerome Bettis 1993-2005 13662 71.2
7 Eric Dickerson 1983-1993 13259 90.8
8 Tony Dorsett 1977-1988 12739 73.6
9 Jim Brown 1957-1965 12312 104.3
10 Marshall Faulk 1994-2005 12279 69.8
11 Edgerrin James 1999-2009 12246 82.7
12 Marcus Allen 1982-1997 12243 55.1
13 Franco Harris 1972-1984 12120 70.1
14 Thurman Thomas 1988-2000 12074 66.3
15 Fred Taylor 1998-2010 11695 76.4
27 Adrian Peterson 2007- 10115 98.2

 

Rank RB Tenure Touchdowns TDs/Game
1 Emmitt Smith 1990-2004 164 0.73
2 LaDainian Tomlinson 2001-2011 145 0.86
3 Marcus Allen 1982-1997 123 0.55
4 Walter Payton 1975-1987 110 0.58
5 Jim Brown 1957-1965 106 0.90
6 John Riggins 1971-1985 104 0.59
T7 Shaun Alexander 2000-2008 100 0.81
T7 Marshall Faulk 1994-2005 100 0.57
9 Barry Sanders 1989-1998 99 0.65
10 Jerome Bettis 1993-2005 91 0.47
15 Adrian Peterson 2007- 86 0.84

Phew. There were good players, there were All-Stars, there were legends … and then there was Jim Brown.

As you can see, one more (healthy) Adrian Peterson-esque season will vault him into lofty territory. He needs only 1,238 yards this year to move him past Riggins into 16th on the yardage chart, and racking up 1,581 yards to surpass Taylor certainly isn’t out of the question. He could very easily be number eight on that list by the end of the 2015 regular season while still being three months away from turning 31. Peterson is almost certain to move into the top-ten in touchdowns next season, and he could very realistically usurp Brown before 2016; the six-time All-Pro has still never posted anything less than a double-digit score season**.

Raw totals are undoubtedly prestigious, but they are also biased towards “compilers” — players who hang on long after their peak and rack up relatively inconsequential numbers. So I devised a way to measure the most dominant runners of their respective eras by finding the leading rusher over every given ten-year stretch since Brown entered the league, culminating with Peterson’s arrival. (Because of this, the last three slots are less than ten years.)

Years Leader Total Yards Next Best Total Yards
1957-1966 Jim Brown (1) 12312 Jim Taylor 8207
1958-1967 Jim Brown (2) 11370 Jim Taylor 8597
1959-1968 Jim Brown (3) 9843 Jim Taylor 8350
1960-1969 Jim Brown (4) 8514 Jim Taylor 7898
1961-1970 Jim Brown (5) 7257 Jim Taylor 6797
1962-1971 Leroy Kelly (1) 6074 Jim Brown 5849
1963-1972 Leroy Kelly (2) 6885 Ken Willard 5564
1964-1973 Leroy Kelly (3) 7274 Ken Willard 5930
1965-1974 Leroy Kelly (4) 7262 O.J. Simpson 6306
1966-1975 O.J. Simpson (1) 8123 Leroy Kelly 7123
1967-1976 O.J. Simpson (2) 9626 Larry Csonka 6469
1968-1977 O.J. Simpson (3) 10183 Larry Csonka 6933
1969-1978 O.J. Simpson (4) 10776 Franco Harris 7377
1970-1979 O.J. Simpson (5) 10539 Franco Harris 8563
1971-1980 O.J. Simpson (6) 10051 Franco Harris 9352
1972-1981 Franco Harris (1) 10339 Walter Payton 9608
1973-1982 Walter Payton (1) 10204 Franco Harris 9888
1974-1983 Walter Payton (2) 11625 Franco Harris 10197
1975-1984 Walter Payton (3) 13309 Tony Dorsett 9525
1976-1985 Walter Payton (4) 14181 Tony Dorsett 10832
1977-1986 Walter Payton (5) 14124 Tony Dorsett 11580
1978-1987 Walter Payton (6) 12805 Tony Dorsett 11029
1979-1988 Walter Payton (7) 11410 Tony Dorsett 10407
1980-1989 Eric Dickerson (1) 11226 Walter Payton 9800
1981-1990 Eric Dickerson (2) 11903 Walter Payton 8340
1982-1991 Eric Dickerson (3) 12439 Marcus Allen 8244
1983-1992 Eric Dickerson (4) 13168 Roger Craig 8070
1984-1993 Eric Dickerson (5) 11451 Thurman Thomas 7631
1985-1994 Eric Dickerson (6) 9346 Thurman Thomas 8724
1986-1995 Barry Sanders (1) 10172 Thurman Thomas 9729
1987-1996 Barry Sanders (2) 11725 Thurman Thomas 10762
1988-1997 Barry Sanders (3) 13778 Thurman Thomas 11405
1989-1998 Barry Sanders (4) 15269 Emmitt Smith 12556
1990-1999 Emmitt Smith (1) 13963 Barry Sanders 13799
1991-2000 Emmitt Smith (2) 14229 Barry Sanders 12495
1992-2001 Emmitt Smith (3) 13687 Barry Sanders 10947
1993-2002 Emmitt Smith (4) 12949 Jerome Bettis 11542
1994-2003 Emmitt Smith (5) 11719 Curtis Martin 11669
1995-2004 Curtis Martin (1) 13366 Emmitt Smith 11172
1996-2005 Curtis Martin (2) 12614 Jerome Bettis 10571
1997-2006 Curtis Martin (3) 11462 Corey Dillon 11241
1998-2007 Edgerrin James (1) 11607 Fred Taylor 10715
1999-2008 Edgerrin James (2) 12121 LaDainian Tomlinson 11760
2000-2009 LaDainian Tomlinson (1) 12490 Edgerrin James 10693
2001-2010 LaDainian Tomlinson (2) 13404 Clinton Portis 9923
2002-2011 LaDainian Tomlinson (3) 12448 Clinton Portis 9923
2003-2012 LaDainian Tomlinson (4) 10765 Steven Jackson 10135
2004-2013 Steven Jackson (1) 10678 Adrian Peterson 10115
2005-2013 Adrian Peterson 10115 Steven Jackson 10005
2006-2013 Adrian Peterson 10115 Frank Gore 9359
2007-2013 Adrian Peterson 10115 Chris Johnson 7965

Note that the NFL didn’t move to its current 16-game format until 1978, so Brown, Kelly, and Simpson essentially lost an entire season’s worth of games over an eight-year span when posting those totals.

What should be immediately apparent is that almost every leader on this list was not just an elite player in his own generation — he was an all-time great. The exceptions are Kelly, who played in the weakest rushing era of the group but was still inducted into the Hall of Fame (albeit 20 years after his retirement), Jackson, who only made the list once because he had three seasons’ worth of numbers that Peterson was still in Oklahoma for, and James, a really damn good running back that I will write about more next week. Tomlinson isn’t a Hall-of-Famer as of the printing of this piece, but he will be on the first ballot in 2017.

The history on this chart practically jumps off the page. You can see when the young cats were coming to steal the crown from the aging lions in winter — Kelly-to-Simpson, Payton-to-Simpson, Tomlinson-to-Peterson — and it’s clear that not all eras were created equal. Kelly and Martin didn’t have a Dorsett or Thurman Thomas nipping at their heels for most of their primes, while the Sanders-Smith duo of the ‘90s could have gone either way.

So where does Peterson fit into that? He only has seven seasons under his belt, but he will certainly lead the 2005-2014 decade after its conclusion (unless Frank Gore outpaces him by 149 yards) and likely for several years after that. Given the volatility of the position, the former Sooner has probably been the reputed best tailback in the NFL since 2008, and possibly even before that; he finished just 133 yards behind league-leader Tomlinson as a rookie (on 77 less carries) and ran for a record 296 yards on San Diego’s fifth-ranked defense in his eighth professional game. It’s so rare for any player to remain so dominant and so well acclaimed, especially at a skill position that’s trending downward in value like an M. Night Shyamalan script.

Top-ten lists of halfbacks often vary depending on how the ballot-caster values yards, touchdowns, durability, and primes — the latter two making Terrell Davis a particularly complex case — but I think it is fair to say that any such group must include the names Brown, Payton, Sanders, Smith, Simpson, and Tomlinson. That’s a rock-solid six, and Peterson should already be a lock in the top-ten as well. The question becomes if Peterson already has a better track record than any of those guys, and if not, what he still needs to accomplish in the latter portion of his career to carve his face onto Mount Rushmore.

For me, I don’t need to see another double digit-touchdown, ~1,300-yard season from All Day to tell me what I already believe to be true. As a guy who was seven-years-old when Sanders retired, Peterson is the best ball-carrier I have seen with my own eyes … while actually comprehending what I was watching. His 2012 season may be the best in history after Simpson’s ’73 campaign, and he’s put up similar numbers to Tomlinson at this point in his career while mostly playing with considerable less talent.

I have little interest in placing a ranking on a career that appears to have plenty left in the tank, but being definitively in my top-seven before his 30th birthday is pretty goddamn impressive.

* If this number seems arbitrary … well, that’s because it is. Setting the bar at 1,000 would have excluded Sayers, a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, and that just felt wrong.

** Peterson and Tomlinson are the only players in NFL history to record double-digit rushing touchdowns in each of their first seven seasons.

Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.

 

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About Brandon Magner (24 Articles)
Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and is currently enrolled in the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He plans to earn his MBA before attending law school in the fall of 2015.

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  1. Is Edgerrin James a Hall-of-Famer? | BMB

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