Thrill of the moment

Adrian Peterson is great, but can he deliver a Super Bowl?

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A reader named John Warren sent in a fascinating comparison. John is a rabid Minnesota Vikings fan in the middle of Texas, which means he has no one to share his pain with. What pain is there for Minnesota Vikings fans? They are rarely bad. In the Super Bowl era, the Vikings have never gone more than four consecutive seasons without making the playoffs.

But they have never been good enough, never won the Super Bowl. For many years, their story was one of late-season heartbreak. There are those four Super Bowls they lost under Bud Grant, including the one where Kansas City’s Hank Stram was doing a colorful sideline play-by-play call (“65 Toss Power Trap!”) and the one that introduced America to Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain. There were a couple of NFC Championship crushers, including the one where Gary Anderson missed his first field goal of the season in an overtime loss to Minnesota almost 20 years ago.

Lately, though, it’s been different: The Vikings have been in that infuriating dead zone — sometimes OK, sometimes lousy, never great, and this is despite having one of the greatest offensive weapons in NFL history, running back Adrian Peterson.

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This has led John to muse non-stop about Peterson. He finally came to his conclusion.

“Here is the great truth,” he writes. “Adrian Peterson is Nolan Ryan.”

Ryan is among the most awesome pitchers in baseball history with “awesome” being defined as, “inspiring great admiration, apprehension or fear.” Ryan inspired all those things in his mind-blowing 27-year career. He threw harder than anyone, ever. He struck out more batters than anyone, ever. He was more unhittable — he threw a staggering seven no-hitters — than anyone, ever. When you assume that these big things are the ones that define greatness, you assume that Nolan Ryan had to be the greatest pitcher in baseball history and must have carried team after team to the mountaintop.

But it just isn’t so. Ryan is not the greatest pitcher ever and he never started a World Series. He was marvelous, of course, a first-ballot, no-doubt Hall of Famer, but the things that kept him from becoming Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson or Tom Seaver or Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson or Walter Johnson or Roger Clemens were the little things that always add up to more than you would expect. Ryan walked more hitters than any pitcher ever will (his 2,795 career walks are almost 1,000 more than any other pitcher and more than Koufax, Maddux and Grover Cleveland Alexander COMBINED). He was so slow to the plate that base stealers ran on him with abandon. He did not field his position. He threw many more wild pitches than anyone since 1900; heck, he threw 50 more wild pitches than second-place Phil Niekro, who threw knuckleballs his whole life.

All of this added together made Ryan more marvelous than successful. Pitcher win-loss records can be deceiving, but Ryan’s 324 career victories and 292 career losses do seem to tell the tale. He was impossibly fun to watch. But if it was Game 7, there are many other pitchers you would rather throw.

Adrian Peterson runs the football about as well as anyone who ever played in the NFL. His 96.7 yards per game is fourth all-time, behind only Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis. His 4.9 yards per carry is third all-time (among running backs with 2,000 or more carries) behind Brown and Sanders. If this year goes reasonably well, he will move well into the top 10 all-time in rushing yards and into the top five in rushing touchdowns. We are talking about an all-time great.

So, why have his teams been so wildly inconsistent, fluctuating from good to dreadful? Why has there, in John’s words, always been this gnawing feeling that Peterson is sort of overrated, that he doesn’t quite match up to those running backs like Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis and the like who have carried their teams to championships?

The first thing you must say is: A running back can only do so much for a team. Walter Payton was impossibly good for almost a decade before the Bears finally started winning. The Vikings have had a half-dozen starting quarterbacks during Peterson’s run, and the defense for a time couldn’t stop anybody, and you can’t blame any of that on a running back.

That said, like Ryan, Peterson’s obvious brilliance — the long runs, the insane moves, the bone-crushing broken tackles — overwhelm a million little things. Peterson doesn’t pass-block. He fumbles. He doesn’t really catch the ball. He commits penalties. Last year is a great example. Peterson led the NFL in rushing (1,485 yards) and tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns (11). You would think this made him the most valuable back in football.

But, according to the incredible work of the folks at Pro Football Focus, there were 13 running backs who were on the field for 600-plus snaps in 2015, and Peterson graded ninth among those 13, just barely ahead of Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy. This is because while Peterson’s running was extremely valuable and he broke more tackles than anyone except Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin, he graded negatively on pass plays and when blocking.

Pro Football Focus graded a player like Detroit’s Theo Riddick much higher than Peterson because of his ability to catch the ball and block.

For years, I’ve had an argument with numerous people but especially my pal, ESPN’s Dave Fleming, over the question of Barry Sanders vs. Emmitt Smith. I concede the obvious: Sanders was the most wonderful runner in the history of the NFL (or at least tied with Gale Sayers). He could do the impossible on the football field. He escaped from tackling strait-jackets. He disappeared and reappeared at will. He was magnificent in every sense of that word. I would much rather watch him run than watch Smith or just about anyone else.

And, assuming I was a coach trying to win the Super Bowl, I would take Smith every single day and twice on Sundays (four times on Super Bowl Sundays). Why? Because Sanders didn’t catch the ball, didn’t block, and his go-for-broke-on-every-play running style motivated his coach to take him out on third down and short. It was the great irony of Sanders’ electrifying career. If you needed a running back to go 50 yards, you would take Sanders over anyone who ever played this crazy game. If you needed a running back to go one yard, you would take someone else.

Smith, on the other hand, couldn’t do magic. But he plowed ahead, he scored touchdowns, he picked up first downs, he caught the ball and he didn’t make mistakes. Sure, people always said he was essentially made by the Cowboys’ incredible offensive line and outside threats. But I never thought that was right. In 1993, when he held out for more money, the Cowboys — as defending Super Bowl champions — played the first two games without him. They lost both games, turned the ball over repeatedly, couldn’t run the ball at all and seemed lost. Then they paid Smith, he came back, led the NFL in rushing in just 13 starts, helped the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl where he ran for 132 yards and scored two touchdowns.

I’m just saying: As a fan, I love watching the thrilling player, and Adrian Peterson — like O.J. Simpson, like Eric Dickerson, like Chris Johnson in his heyday — is thrilling to watch run. But that’s not the same thing as being a winning force.

The Vikings have decided this year that they need to go for it, largely because Peterson is 31 years old and he won’t be this great for too much longer and the window closes. They’re betting that Peterson is not just one of the most exciting players in NFL history, he’s also good enough to lead a team to the Super Bowl. Big Vikings fan John, down in Austin, hopes they’re right. But he doesn’t really believe it.