Adrian Peterson wants more than a record, more than an MVP award. He is an athlete with a cause.
He wants to revive the rep of the running back, saving the position from the irrelevancy of a third-party candidate. Other recent-vintage backs have staged strong campaigns on the field, but Peterson built himself a platform and high-stepped into partisanship.
“The MVP, man, that's something that I've always wanted to grab,’’ he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune a few weeks ago. “I work hard. I want to be the best player to play this game, so with that, MVP awards come. But I know this league and how it is, man. They're kind of biased to the quarterback, which is unfortunate. They make it hard for other players to win it, but I will.’’
“Kind of biased”? We’re all hypnotized, under a spell. We need to watch Peterson this Sunday not just because he has a chance to break Eric Dickerson’s 28-year-old single-season rushing record, or because his Vikings might beat Green Bay and make the playoffs after a 3-13 season, or even because his recovery from ripped knee ligaments pushes the NFL ever deeper into the realm of science fiction.
We need to watch to be deprogrammed. Some of us resisted the cult of the QB, but it proved far more tenacious, overpowering us, spawning the sub-cult of the preening receiver.
We rolled our eyes as Keyshawn Johnson published “Just Give Me the Damn Ball’’ and grimaced when Terrell Owens called out Donovan McNabb for throwing up in the heat of a Super Bowl, not long after he had answered a question about Jeff Garcia’s sexuality by saying “if it smells like a rat … ‘’
We knew of self-indulgent running backs. We could remember Ricky Watters and the “for who, for what?’’ rejoinder to alligator-arms accusations. But then young, compliant receivers would whisper that they felt obliged to complain so the quarterback would give them some touches, and the distinction became clear. The elevation of the passing game had made diva behavior part of a receiver’s job description. Running backs whined only when they went rogue.
As an antidote, the cult resisters turned to YouTube. And there, on a site created at the heart of the running-back recession, we could find solace in clips of Earl Campbell exploding past a line of scrimmage or Barry Sanders’ hips shifting as if he were slaloming down a mountain. For an extended guilty pleasure, we’d dig up the montage of Bo Jackson sublimely set to Tommy Petty’s “Runnin’ down a Dream.’’ In really desperate moments, we would remind ourselves that Emmitt Smith was the first NFL player to win “Dancing With the Stars.’’
But the quarterback culture stifled hope of ever turning back. The belief in throwing morphed into a shibboleth. The experts constantly enabled abandonment of the run by defending coaches who chickened out, citing a stacked line and saying, in effect, “What are you gonna do?’’
You hear that enough and the words start to crowd out the most elementary logic. Did no one think of putting eight in the box against Jim Brown, even in an era when throwing the ball represented less of a threat? O.J. Simpson played for garbage teams, but defenses just hunkered down in the backfield and waited for him? Really?
Peterson has already cut deeply into that bunk. The Vikings’ game plan contains few mysteries. The defense knows he is coming, knows what it should do, and rarely pulls it off.
The Texans have one of the best defenses in the NFL, and they prepared wisely to keep Peterson in check. They held him to 86 yards rushing, a defensive coup, and yet … It was still 86 yards, and the center-stage effort to check him allowed a 23-6 Vikings win to develop in the wings.
In 2012, the Vikings have a shot at 10 wins and their quarterback is a character actor. Not a game manager, mind you. Two years into his career, Christian Ponder hasn’t settled in enough to attain that expertise. He plays off Peterson’s success.
Ponder still maintained a celebrity edge through his impromptu marriage to Samantha Steele of ESPN. Even as second fiddle, those quarterbacks make a lot of noise.
This is why Peterson must stump and self-promote. A couple of years ago, he landed a cameo on “Entourage,’’ and it seemed like a watershed moment for running backs and their partisans. The show hadn’t loaded up on sports stars yet, and it would feature only two quarterbacks in its entire run.
Two QBs to one RB. In this era, that was a virtual tie.
Problem was, Tom Brady got extended camera time, playing himself as a total mensch who charmed the Pats-hating Turtle out of his New York bias. Drew Brees had a hilarious scene in which he tenderly held a baby bird on the set of a sappy commercial while he big-timed Turtle over the phone. Peterson turned up very briefly at an auction after the NFC title loss in 2010, took “tough loss’’ condolences from one of the gang and then asked if Vince planned to bid 200 grand on a dinosaur skull he was selling.
The QBs got to be cool. The running back had to try to sell the remains of an extinct creature.
So when Peterson says he wants to run the 200 and 400 at the next Olympics, as he did in an interview with Graham Bensinger of “In Depth,’’ let’s ignore the impracticalities of a running back counting on his fast-twitch fibers surviving four more years in the NFC North and then tolerating the heat of Brazil when he should be in training camp.
The idea stimulates visions of glamour, and that is part of his mission. He is All Day, the best nickname in the game today (it’s a shame to abbreviate it to “A.D.’’). He may not top Dickerson’s record this weekend. He needs 208 yards versus Green Bay to pass 2,105. But barely a year after a surgeon hovered over his knee, in the era of the QB, the record shouldn’t even be in range. Yet there it is, waiting for him against a team that permitted him 210 yards in its own backyard.
Whether he passes Dickerson or not, his numbers amount to far more valuable currency than the record-breaking receiving yardage of Calvin Johnson. Megatron has remarkable skill, but his Lions passed exorbitantly this season because they stunk in too many other areas of the game.
Peterson runs for wins. He trashes defenses and stifles shibboleths. Let the deprogramming continue, All Day.