We've only talked in passing detail about Adrian Peterson's attempt to chase Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record for a second straight season -- probably because there's been so much chatter about the topic in other places. Whether it's Peterson talking about wanting to run for 2,500 yards or experts saying he can't possibly duplicate last year's 2,097-yard season, the topic has been a frequent source of conversation heading into the season.
We won't belabor the point here today, other than to mention a couple unique things about Peterson's 2012 season that might, in fact, be unique -- as in, they can't be duplicated again.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Peterson ran for 1,019 yards after contact in 2012, for an average of 2.9 yards a carry. In other words, nearly half of Peterson's yards came on his ability to take a hit and keep running for an average of almost 3 yards. Essentially, after he took a hit last year, he was still better than the Raiders' Rashad Jennings, who ran for 2.8 yards a carry -- with or without contact! -- in 2012. And only one running back in the league -- Maurice Jones-Drew, with 785 yards after contact in 2011 -- has even come within 250 yards of Peterson's total since Stats & Information started tracking the statistic in 2009.
From 2009 to 2011, Peterson's post-contact average was 2.3 yards per carry. If he carried the same number of times in 2013 as he did in 2012 (348) and dropped back to his 2009-11 average, he'd run for 219 fewer yards. If we add the 2012 season back in, bumping Peterson's average after contact back up to 2.49, and assume he hits that figure this year on 348 carries, he'd run for 152 fewer yards.
Then there's this: Peterson had 27 runs of 20 yards or more in 2012. That was the most in football last year by 15. Since 2008, only five other running backs have even recorded half that many long runs, one of them being Peterson himself in 2008.
We can all remember the highlights of Peterson breaking one tackle and busting loose for 60 or 70 yards. If he can't do that with the same regularity this year, he'd have to find another way to make up for those yards -- most likely by getting more carries or increasing his productivity on his shorter runs. Considering he had the second-most carries of his career last year, and his highest yards-per-carry figure, it seems unlikely to expect Peterson to put up even bigger numbers without the efficiency afforded by a 70-yard romp.
Finally, we've got to consider this point: Of the 18 men in NFL history to carry more than 300 times in a season and average more than five yards a carry, only two -- Barry Sanders and Tiki Barber -- did it in back-to-back years. Sanders actually crossed the 2,000-yard plateau in his second trip over the 300-and-5.0 barrier, when he ran for 2,053 yards on 335 carries (an average of 6.13 yards per attempt) in 1997. And Barber did it at ages 30 and 31, when he averaged 5.21 and 5.08 yards per attempt in 2005 and 2006. But considering Peterson's 6.03 yards per attempt tied O.J. Simpson for the second most of anyone who carried more than 300 times in a season, it probably isn't realistic to expect him to do it again. No running back in history has ever crossed 1,500 yards a year after running for 2,000, and the drop-off in yards-per-carry is part of the reason why.
In all likelihood, topping Dickerson would likely require even more carries than Peterson got last year (Dickerson, it should be noted, carried 379 times when he set the record in 1984). When the Vikings drafted Cordarrelle Patterson and signed Greg Jennings in an effort to balance their offense, it's worth asking whether Peterson's workload might even drop this year.
After watching Peterson last year, it's awfully tough to say he's incapable of anything. If he's determined to break Dickerson's record -- as he certainly seems to be -- he'll probably give himself a reasonable shot. But as Dickerson has said, so many things would have to go right for Peterson to do it again. History, at least, is not on the running back's side -- not that he's ever been particularly concerned with that.
Maybe it's best to treat Peterson's 2012 season for what it was: a singular act of brilliance by a running back driven to make a dramatic comeback from knee surgery, and not the new normal. Yes, Peterson will be healthier this season than he was last year. Yes, the Vikings will likely be willing to use him early in the season more than they were last year (the fact that Peterson didn't cross 150 yards until Week 7 makes what he did even more remarkable). But it's unreasonable to expect a running back to break tackles and explode for long runs with the regularity Peterson did last year.
If he does it again, and topples Dickerson in the process, Peterson will and should be celebrated for years to come. But last year should be enough to get him that anyway, especially considering how heavily history is stacked against him replicating it.