With the way he runs and the numbers he compiles and the awe he inspires, Adrian Peterson draws comparisons to Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith.
But the running back legend he might be most similar to? Barry Sanders. Unfortunately for Peterson and the Vikings, that has as much to do with their fates as it does their incomparable skills.
Peterson’s in his sixth season now. Only once — in 2009 with Brett Favre — has he shared a backfield with a quarterback who could match his own productivity or help the team thrive through the air the same way it dominates on the ground.
Sanders had that one season too, in 1991, when the Lions made it to the NFC title game before losing on the road — just like the Vikings in 2009. Otherwise Sanders spent his career making incredible runs and putting up eye-opening numbers while his team never did much of anything. Finally he retired before the 1999 season, walking away from the game he dominated, even if his team never did. Is that in Peterson’s future?
There’s something poignant about watching an individual in a team sport who can be the best in the game but can’t lift the franchise to great heights. This is in a different category than players who perhaps don’t lead their teams to titles because they fall short in big moments or simply run into a dominant opponent. Karl Malone and Charles Barkley are two of the more famous basketball players who suffered those fates.
This is about players who spend most of their career stuck on such inferior teams that they really never have a chance to win in the postseason or much in the regular season. They waste their primes while showcasing unmatched skills. They say the right things to the press, but the frustration occasionally leaks out. They give everything they have and often end up in the Hall of Fame, but their teams remain at the bottom of the standings or always exit the postseason early.
Ernie Banks is one of the most famous examples, stuck for most of his career on terrible Cubs teams. Steve Carlton won 27 games for the 59-win Phillies in 1972. But it’s a bit different in baseball, where a pitcher is only going to dominate every five days and a hitter four times a game.
Basketball offers up this scenario more than any other sport, simply because one player can control the game and often times all he needs is just one more great player to create a great team. Think about Kevin Garnett with the Timberwolves all those years, when the second-best player on the team was Wally Szczerbiak, yet we wondered why the team couldn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs. Every night K.G. went out and scored 20-plus and grabbed 12 rebounds and was the best defensive player on the court, and it would be good for 50 wins in the regular season but never four in the postseason. When the Wolves finally put two other great players on the team in 2004 — Sprewell and Cassell — Garnett won MVP and Minnesota made it to the Western Conference Finals. And that was the final highlight of Garnett’s Minnesota years.
Hakeem Olajuwon suffered through some miserable teams in Houston post-Twin Towers before finally winning two titles. Kobe Bryant nearly went insane in 2006 and ’07 when he had to share a backcourt with a point guard named Smush. Think if he’d spent his whole career running the court with Smush Parker. Now think about how Peterson feels spending most of his career with Christian Ponder and Tarvaris Jackson.
Michael Jordan’s highest-scoring season came in 1987, four years before the Bulls became champions. For awhile it looked like Jordan might suffer for years and years, but then Scottie Pippen became an all-time great and Phil Jackson emerged from a haze of smoke and found a spot on the bench. And as much fun as it was watching Jordan in his prime and winning titles, he was just as captivating when his teammates were Brad Sellers and Dave Corzine and he drove himself to exhaustion, just to get his team to 40 victories.
In football it’s usually about a quarterback. Dan Marino set all the passing records but never made it to a Super Bowl after his second year in the league. An inferior running game or weak defense doomed the Dolphins, even as his passing won them so many games. John Elway suffered the same fate until the end of his career when Terrell Davis became the best player on the team and the Broncos finally became the best team in the league.
The Vikings no doubt need better wide receivers. But it also seems like a good quarterback — just good, doesn’t even have to be great — would change everything. It did in 2009.
Perhaps Peterson can actually take inspiration from Walter Payton, who came into the league in 1975 and toiled away on terrible Chicago Bears teams for years. He’d run for 1,500 yards, the Bears would lose 11 games. He ran with anger and power, much like Peterson. People pitied him when they saw his teammates, especially at quarterback. But things started changing and finally in 1985 it all came together and the Bears went 15-1, made a dumb video and won the Super Bowl. Sweetness had his ring. So in five years maybe Peterson runs for 1,500 yards, a decent quarterback keeps defenses honest and a dominating defense wins the games. And in the Super Bowl, as the entire nation wants Peterson to get a touchdown in a 42-6 victory over the Chargers, the final score of the game instead goes to a fat lineman who doubles as a novelty act down at the goal line.
In the meantime Peterson will keep running his heart out, right up until the moment when his quarterback breaks it.