NFL defenses and history standing in Adrian Peterson’s way in 2018

Adrian Peterson photo courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings

Adrian Peterson says he aims to start for the Washington Redskins this season.

Peterson insists there is still gas left in the tank of the NFL’s 12th all-time leading rusher – a back who as recently as 2012 was the NFL’s MVP and as recently as 2015 was the league’s leading rusher. But at 33 years of age, history says the odds are stacked against Peterson.

There have been 241 different NFL players who have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season. Only 30 of them managed to do it in their 30s. Hall of Famers Jim Taylor, O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson and LaDainian Tomlinson never rushed for 1,000 yards in their 30s. All gained 1,000 a final time at the age of 29. Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk never rushed for 1,000 yards in his 30s. His last 1,000-yard season came when he was 28. Hall of Famer Larry Csonka never rushed for 1,000 yards in his 30s. His last 1,000-yard season came when he was 27.

Peterson is one of the 30 backs who rushed for 1,000 yards in his 30s. So is Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas. Both rushed for 1,000 at the age of 30. Peterson gained 1,485 yards in 2015 and Thomas gained 1,033 yards in 1996. Thomas played four more seasons without ever getting close to 1,000 again. Peterson has played two seasons since his last 1,000 and hasn’t come close.

The Redskins finished 28th in the NFL in rushing last season and envisioned rookie Derrius Guice as their feature back this fall. He rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore at LSU in 2016 and 1,251 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior. He elected to skip his senior season to turn pro and the Redskins claimed him last April with a second-round draft pick.

But Guice tore up his left knee in the preseason opener at New England and will now spend his rookie season on injured reserve. Samaje Perine was Washington’s leading rusher a year ago with 603 yards but status quo was not going to fly in 2018. So the call went out to Peterson, who signed for the veteran minimum in mid-August. He looked sharp in his personal preseason opener last weekend, rushing for 56 yards in 11 carries against Denver and one of the league’s best defense.

But the yards come a bit tougher in November than they do in August for a running back Peterson’s age.

Here’s what he’s up against in 2018 – only three players in NFL history ever rushed for 1,000 yards once they reached the age of 33: John Riggins, John Henry Johnson and Frank Gore. Johnson and Gore each rushed for 1,000 yards at the age of 33, only Riggins did it at 34 and both Johnson and Riggins did it again at 35.

That’s been it.

Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, rushed for 1,000 yards a final time in his career at the age of 32. So did Walter Payton, the NFL’s second-all-time rusher. Barry Sanders, the NFL’s third-leading rusher, rushed for 1,000 a final time at 30. Jim Brown, who is considered the greatest running back of all time with his eight rushing titles, rushed for 1,000 a final time at 29.

The oldest running back ever to win a rushing title was Hall of Famer Curtis Martin, who rushed for 1,697 yards with the New York Jets in 2004 at the age of 31. But he fell off to 735 yards the following season and then retired.

The wall for running backs is 29. That’s why the NFL is reluctant to pay running backs as the age. That’s why a running back of Peterson’s stature will now suit up for his fourth team since winning his last rushing title in 2015.

History awaits Peterson. He needs four yards to pass Faulk at No. 11 on the all-time rushing list, 37 yards to pass Brown at 10 and 464 yards to pass Tony Dorsett at 9. But he’ll need almost 1,000 yards – 984 – to overtake Dickerson at No. 8 on the all-time rushing list.

History says Peterson will have a tough time gaining that 1,000 yards this fall.

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  1. Justin
    August 30, 2018

    Good article, Rick. But some of your stats are deceiving. While technically true that Sanders last rushed for 1000 at 30 and Jim Brown last did the same at 29, it is also true that neither played a season where they didn’t rush for 1000 in their 30s because neither actually played after their last 1000 yard season. Both retired. Therefore, we have no idea what Sanders or Brown would have done. My guess is that they would have both had several more productive seasons because they are both in the very short list of best RBs ever (i.e., what even Ron calls “first ballot hall of famers”). If Peterson wants to join that list, which isn’t as far fetched as it sounds, he will need at least one but probably two more very productive seasons. I have no idea if Peterson will be more Riggins or more Dickerson. However, coming out of Oklahoma, Peterson could very easily have been called the dictionary definition of “running back.” He has always been a physical freak. Therefore, Peterson has a better chance than most running backs of succeeding in his 30s. If he does, they he may have a date with destiny.

  2. bachslunch
    September 2, 2018

    Rick, excellent points made, nice write-up.

    Agreed that Peterson is unlikely to be a 1,000 rusher at his age. History is not on his side. Not sure how good his offensive line is, and that’s an important part of the equation as well. And if the ‘Skins offense is a pass-happy one, that will also matter.

    He’s a HoF lock right now given his extremely high peak, plus he just got over the 12K career rushing yards line last season, which seems to be a requirement for a normal career length HoF RB nowadays.

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