Some records will never be broken in our lifetime. Tom Brady will hold both career records for passing yards and passing touchdowns. Eric Dickerson has held the single-season rushing record since 1984. And Jerry Rice will likely hold the receiving yardage record for a long time. Every season fans and analysts hold out hope and watch as players “are on pace” for any number of records throughout the year.
None is more exciting than the single-season rushing record for running backs, which has slowly morphed into the 2,000-yard club. Because eight men have done it, and only one holds the record, just getting within sniffing distance of Dickerson’s 2,105 is legendary on its own.
Only one running back has come within 10 yards of the record since 1973. That would be the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson during the 2012 season. “All Day” was an absolute monster that year. The Vikings were sitting at 6-6 when Peterson went on a tear to save their season. Over those last four games, Peterson rushed 114 times for 651 yards. Unfortunately, AD came up short, landing nine yards away from NFL immortality.
Fortunately, 10-6 was enough for the Vikings to earn a playoff berth. After finishing 3-13 in 2011, Minnesota needed to turn things around in a big way in 2012, and Peterson delivered. We may think of Minnesota as a run-first team now, but it was of a different magnitude back then. Peterson was the Vikings’ offense. (A major reason why they were a three-win team in 2011? Peterson tore both his ACL and MCL that year.) The offense hopped on his back, Peterson carried them to the playoffs, and he ended up a first down run away from the record books.
But could this be done today? Have we seen the end of running backs carrying an offense on their shoulders? Derrick Henry joined the 2,000-yard club last season, and even with the emergence of Ryan Tannehill, he’s the driver of the Tennessee Titans’ offense. However, running backs are not typically the focus anymore, and teams are increasingly less likely to keep them around any longer than they have to.
Think of the backs who have accomplished this feat: O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Jamal Lewis, Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, and Derrick Henry. Every single one of them won a regular-season MVP, All-Pro First Team, or Offensive Player of the Year. Half of the running backs in the 2,000-yard club are in the Hall of Fame (Simpson, Sanders, Dickerson, and Davis). And, once they are eligible, more will follow.
Looking again at Peterson’s 2012 campaign, the Vikings were a team that had to have that level of production to win games and make the playoffs. Without him, that Minnesota squad was headed for a .500 finish or worse. We see this less often in the modern NFL: a team that cannot function without their lead back. Some teams don’t even have a featured back and use a run-by-committee approach every week.
As more offenses employ a multi-back strategy, it emphasizes how impressive Peterson’s campaign was. The other backs on the team were Toby Gerhart, who had 50 touches, and Matt Asiata, who had 44. AP? He had 348. To bring this full circle, the modern movement of running-back-by-committee the 49ers employed last season had Jeff Wilson with 126, Raheem Mostert at 104, and Jerick McKinnon with 81 rushes. With their “tailback of two cities,” the Green Bay Packers featured Aaron Jones at 201 attempts, and Jamaal Williams at 119 touches last season.
Even as fans clamor for Dalvin Cook to take fewer reps to preserve his health and for the Vikings to be less of a run-first offense, Cook has still yet to reach Peterson’s rush total in 2012 in any given year of his career so far. Last year he had 312 rushes, a career-high and 62 more than in the 2019 season. However, when pass receptions are taken into account, Cook’s 2020 campaign was still 30 total touches away from Peterson’s 2012.
However, running backs are more present in the passing game now. Cook caught 53 passes two years ago, 10 more than Peterson’s highest pass-catching total. Even a running back like Henry is expected to do more out of the backfield than Peterson ever was, even as teams are more conscious of running-back health.
Cook has seen a 350-plus touch season, but the passing game was a much bigger factor for him, given that Peterson had trouble catching the ball. We’ve also seen 400-plus touch seasons from Christian McCaffrey and Le’Veon Bell in the last five years. Teams are factoring in receptions differently, considering there is usually less wear and tear involved in the passing game. So while fans are displeased with the touches their team’s favorite running back endures throughout a season, we have seen very similar league-leading amounts of touches for the last 20 seasons. Modern running backs are still just as involved as in years past, but offenses have evolved for a running back to remain a threat without toughing it out in the trenches.
The style of play we see today, combined with the notion that running backs are more expendable, makes it extremely difficult to reach the rarified air of Peterson’s 2012 season. He may be the last pure running back to challenge Dickerson’s record.