Saturday, January 5, 2013

God's Finest Work

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a running back. Most kids want to be the quarterback, but not me. 100 yard rushing games were much more magical to me than 300 yard passing games. A touchdown run seemed way more difficult than throwing a touchdown pass. A 1,000 yard rushing season, whether at the high school, college or pro level, was the individual sports number that impressed me the most. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing a running back take a pitch, hit the seam, accelerate, and jet down the sideline. Perhaps growing up in Oklahoma during the halcyon days of the wishbone fostered my love for the running back position, but whatever the reason, I consider myself a running back connoisseur--which entitles me to write this blog post and there is nothing that you, the reader, can do about it.

(Note: While RB's were, and are, my ultimate, I also reserve a special place in my football heart for the running quarterback--I like those guys even more than a pure passer. A special tip of the cap to Jack Mildren, Steve Davis, Thomas Lott, J.C. Watts, Jamelle Hollieway and Charles Thompson, as well as non-Sooners like James Street, Dee Dowis and that freak Johnny Football.)

Who is the greatest running back ever? Few questions in sports generate a heated debate like this one. Ask this question of any football fan, and you could hear any one of 20-30 different names in response. I've always believed that Barry Sanders was the best. I've never seen anyone quite like him. He holds the college single season record (2,628--think about that!) which included five straight 200 yard games. In the NFL, he set the record for consecutive 100 yard games with 14, and had he not retired way too early, he would have easily become the NFL's all-time leading rusher. He gained most of his NFL yardage without the benefit of being on a great team, or having a great quarterback or great offensive line--heck, Sanders rarely even had a fullback to clear the way for him. He did everything on his own.

(Note: Because I believe Sanders to be the best does not mean that I think everyone else sucked. If you want to argue that Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson (awkward), Gale Sayers, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, L.T., Marcus Allen, Tony Dorsett--or any of the guys I'm about to mention--are the best ever, I don't really have a problem with it. You would be wrong, but I don't really have a problem with it.)

One of the things I look for in a back is the thrill factor--that feeling of great anticipation you get before the snap, just hoping that he gets the ball because something really exciting could happen. Franco Harris had zero thrill factor. John Riggins, Larry Csonka, Otis Anderson, George Rogers--all great backs, but guys who barely moved the needle for me. Luckily, as kid who loved OU, I always had a thrill-back to root for. Greg Pruitt, Joe Washington, Billy Sims--all had a huge thrill factor. Marcus Dupree may truly have been the greatest that never was--a massive thrill every time he touched the ball.

And then there was Sweetness. Walter Payton was a god. If you want to argue that he was the greatest ever, you have a pretty good argument. Great speed, great strength, great moves, great numbers. If you don't have Payton in your top two or three running backs of all-time, then you are making a big mistake. He is the second-most perfect back that God ever created.

Which brings me to the guy that I consider the closest to perfection at the position that I've ever seen: Adrian Peterson. Sanders was the best, but he wasn't the perfect back--he was 5'8. Payton was 5'10. Peterson is the perfect size: 6'1, 217. Big enough to scare the hell out of defenders, but light enough to possess 4.3 speed. Only Bo Jackson (6'1, 227) and Herschel Walker (6'1, 225) compare to Peterson in terms of size/speed perfection, but neither of those backs had Adrian's moves. Dickerson was 6'3, 220--perhaps an inch or two too tall, hindering his ability to "get small" and somewhat limiting his shiftiness. No back has ever thrilled me like A.D (All Day, for those who don't know and think I made a typo). I don't believe we've ever seen anyone with his size, his speed, his vision, his moves, his toughness and his work ethic. Ever.

Peterson can run straight over you, or he can take one arm and throw you out of his way. He can run around you, either by freezing you with a great stutter-step or by changing direction on a dime. He can run away from you by using his great acceleration at the line of scrimmage, or by using his blazing speed in the open field. There are no limits to the ways in which he can get his yardage. His one weakness, which showed early in his career, was the fumble, but over the last three years he appears to have corrected that problem.

Peterson's 2012 season was the stuff of legend, and probably the greatest season by a running back in NFL history. With apologies to '73 Simpson, '77 Payton, '84 Dickerson, '97 Sanders,'06 Tomlinson, and '09 Johnson, '12 Peterson beats them all. 2,097 yards (an astounding 6.0 yards per carry!) eight months after tearing his MCL and ACL on a team that has zero passing threat is such a remarkable feat it defies all football logic. Had Peterson rushed for 1,000 yards this season, I would have considered that an incredible comeback. But to double that? You have to be kidding me.

His very first carry in a big game in college was a 44 yard run against Texas--you could tell that Peterson was extra-special. 1,925 yards as a true freshman and (at the time) the closest a frosh had ever come to winning the Heisman Trophy. Kids everywhere wanted to wear #28.

(Note: A.D., Dickerson, and Faulk made high 20 numbers for RB's cool. 26, 27, 28, and 29 were always a bit of a wasteland for great backs, who usually wore low 20's or low 30's. High 30's never, ever look good on a running back. Traditionally, the best running back numbers have been 20, 22, 24, 32, 33, 34. In college, I've also always loved a running back who wore a single digit--it makes them look fast. And, oddly, I liked it that Charles White wore 12 at USC--somehow he made that ultimate QB number look cool as a RB. It should also be noted that 49 is the worst possible legally-allowed number for a running back.)

In addition to authoring the greatest-ever season by a running back, Peterson also holds the NFL record for most yards in one game (297). With 8,849 career yards at age 27, A.D. has a chance, if he remains healthy (big if for any running back) to come close to Emmitt's all-time mark. He would have to average about 1,300 yards for seven more seasons--not out of the question given his physical gifts and his work ethic. Even if he never threatens Emmitt's mark, he's already cemented himself as the best back of his era, and one of the best of all-time.

No running back has ever come close to giving me the thrills that A.D. has. I would like us all to hit our knees and thank the sweet Lord for creating the perfect running back. Amen.


  1. Perhaps your finest blog, Junes! I too, am fascinated by the RB, but especially this one. We were all on pins and needles last week as AD eeked ever so close to the record. My 6 year old cried when he realized AD did not get the record. I am just glad that my two boys are old enough to understand his greatness and aspire to one day wear #28 for Boomer Sooner.

  2. Sorry, but Earl Campbell is the best ever. There are no highlights like his. Power, speed, agility the best. Listen to your favorite team's coach, Barry Switzer, Earl is the best. Just because his pro career was shortened does not minimize his greatness. He was paired with Dan Pastorini and took the Oilers to the AFC Championship twice for Goodness Sake!

  3. nice article. I think Sanders is the GOAT, but I cant argue with the premise that AD is as close to a perfect RB that you will ever find.

    one mistake though: AD's first college carry was a 3 yard run at home against Bowling Green, not Texas. The Texas game was his 5th game that year:

  4. Thank you Steve, you are correct. I've changed the note to reflect that it was his first carry that day vs Texas, not his first career carry.

  5. I was lucky to watch every single college game of both Sanders and Peterson in person. Neither had anything on Billy Simms fro.

  6. I'd have to go with Dickerson. Every team the Rams played knew they had one guy to stop, and for like 8 years in a row, no one could do it.

    Herschel was a lot better than people give him credit for, and should have been in the "pro football" (not "NFL") hall of fame long ago, since the USFL was "pro football" too.

    And the best I ever saw in person was Rueben Mayes of Washington State, in a 1984 game at Stanford where he put up 216 yards, mostly on 5 long TDs. The next week he stuck Oregon with 357 yards. He was decent in the NFL, but injuries prevented most fans from seeing just how good he might have been.