ASHBURN, Va. -- At a card show in northern Virginia in August, Adrian Peterson chatted with former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor. Peterson remained unsigned and was a little confused as to why.
“I was telling him, ‘Just be patient, it’ll come. Some good stuff will happen,'” Taylor said.
A few days later, the Washington Redskins called. And a lot of good stuff is happening. In August, there were questions about whether Peterson could still play; now he's the lead back for a division leader, on pace to rush for more than 1,300 yards. He has 587 rushing yards and four touchdowns in seven games.
If he rushes for 1,000 yards, he’d be the fifth player in history to reach that figure at age 33. A lot of backs are hoping that he does, including the last one to do so -- Frank Gore, who topped that total two years ago with Indianapolis.
Taylor rushed for more than 1,000 yards at ages 30 and 31. Tiki Barber rushed for 1,662 yards at age 31 -- and then retired. Eric Dickerson didn’t crack 1,000 yards in his 30s, but he’s the one in the Hall of Fame.
All four backs weighed in on Peterson’s renaissance season.
Why do you think Peterson has been able to revive his career in Washington?
Fred Taylor: “A lot of the time it’s timing. It’s the systems. It’s the opportunities. ... It’s the type of running scheme he’s used to. I know the long run he had the other day, he had two pullers out in front of him. Go back and look at some old runs in the B, C gap and he wants to stretch it and get downhill and put a little fear in that safety’s heart, where the safety won’t run up on him because he punishes those guys. He’s done a lot, showing power, showing quickness, showing speed. He still has that extra gear. I do want to say he deserves everything that’s happening because he put in the work. He’s been extremely patient.”
Eric Dickerson: “When I think of the Washington Redskins, even going back to the days of when we played -- I was a Skins fan myself; my cousin [Dexter Manley] played for Washington, and I wanted to play for the Redskins when I left the Colts. But when I’d think of us, the Rams and the Redskins, it was about [power running]. It’s probably an old way of thinking. But I thought it would be a good fit for him in Washington. He and Chris Thompson, a guy that can come out of the backfield. It’s the perfect fit.
“You have to be in the right situation, you really do. I don’t care how old you are or how young you are. If you don’t have the guys up front, it won’t work. The kid with the Giants, [Saquon] Barkley, he’s a great talent. ... But he has no help. With Adrian, if he didn’t have guys on the outside or a quarterback or the line, it would be no different. He’d struggle, whether he was 23 or 33. When you’re in your 30s, you make a big deal of it.”
Tiki Barber: “I think part of it is the chip on his shoulder. There’s a determination inside of him that wants to prove everybody wrong. When I watch him, he looks old. I remember Adrian when we played in the Pro Bowl together. He was young and powerful and could run away from anybody. Yet he’s still very effective despite how he looks. That has to come from the inside.”
What impresses you the most about Peterson?
Frank Gore: “How he pulls away from DBs. I’m happy for him. Just hearing all the time about age -- just because you turn a certain number, they don’t know how this man lives in the offseason, how he trains, how much he loves the game. That’s the key. Guys like him, myself, Marshawn [Lynch] are true football players. I can tell A.P. is motivated. He’s here to prove [people] wrong, and he’s doing it. They're winning, and he’s one of the biggest reasons they’re winning, and that’s big.”
Barber: “Durability. The hardest thing, and I remember at the end of my career, is staying healthy week to week as you get older, not recovering as quickly, so being available every week, save for the one game where he gained only 4 yards. He’s been available, and that’s the biggest asset he’s provided to the Redskins. Your body just doesn’t recover as quickly; the damage is cumulative. I always said being a running back is a function of carries, and once you get a certain number, you don’t recover like you used to.”
Do you think Peterson will gain 1,000 yards, and what would it mean?
Gore: “Oh, yeah! He might go to the Pro Bowl. He might get 1,200-plus if he stays healthy. He should be good on 1,000. That’s the goal for a back, especially doing it at our age -- that’s really big. Just knowing that there are only a few guys who turned our age and still doing it. If he gets 1,000, I’m definitely going to be happy for him.”
Dickerson: “Oh, yeah, if he stays healthy. Everything comes down to being healthy. That’s what it's all about, and also having guys in front of you who are just as dedicated to doing your job as you are. He’ll do his part, but you have to do your part, too. When you’re winning, man, it changes your attitude. You’re leading the division. It’s a good situation for him. He hasn’t had this situation in many years.”
Barber: “I do, mainly because [Redskins coach] Jay Gruden understands the value of the run game and how their offense is working. It would be the perfect cap and not a cap really, but the beginning of the cap to an unbelievable Hall of Fame career. It’s the juxtaposition of how we thought of him at the beginning of the career, where everyone just knew he would be the man and would rush for 1,500 yards and ultimately a 2,000-yard season like it was a foregone conclusion. And flip to a few years later, and everyone says he’s done. I was one of those, ‘No way he has anything left in the tank. Too many carries; he’s been beat up and hurt too many times.’ Yet here he is, proving everyone wrong.”
Taylor: “Without a doubt. It’s just another notch on the belt for the most part, and he wants more than that. He can rack up yards anywhere. He wants to prove to people he can help this team win, and he also wants to prove he belongs in the top three statistically of all time. The 1,000 yards, I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s on the top of his list. He’s happy to be playing football.”
Do you see any difference in Peterson?
Dickerson: “I don’t think he’s as fast as he was five years ago. Of course not. All of us lose speed. But he’s faster than most guys, way faster -- and half of the running backs in the NFL, he can outrun. People always look at numbers and age. It’s not about the age, it’s about the situation you’re in and the team you play for. If you don’t have the horses up front, it won’t work. ... I’ve been that guy. I’ve been there with no guys in front of me and I know how frustrating it is.”
Barber: “He’s catching the ball, or at least being asked to do it more than he has. And it’s interesting because when he first came in, I’d say this kid wants to be Walter Payton -- and I meant it in a good way and a bad way. Walter took on challengers for a smaller back. He put his head down and he ran like he was 240 [pounds] even though he wasn’t. I was like, 'Man, Adrian is not gonna last. He can’t do that.' This was in 2005, ’06. Athletes are different, so that’s one thing I noticed: He’s not doing that as often, trying to put his head through someone. He’s gotten smart about taking hits.”
How hard is it to do what Peterson is doing?
Taylor: “It’s hard for a guy whose mindset is mid-tier, but AD has played above the stratosphere his entire career. The ACL slowed him down, and then the year off slowed him down. Otherwise, look at what he’s be doing to the record books. It happens. It’s part of the game, but if he had stayed healthy like Walter [Payton], Emmitt [Smith] and Barry [Sanders], he would be pushing the No. 1 spot where Emmitt is. It’s hard because it requires discipline, it requires focus and you’ve got to stay hungry. That part is hard. But he had a routine his whole career where he worked his ass off, so he makes it look easy. Those young guys don’t understand it when you’re an older guy, you don’t just get excited to play the game. You get excited about things like preparation and game-planning and coming up with schemes and protections. That’s what excites older players. That experience takes over when you lose some of that athletic ability. But he’s a natural. He’s superhuman. That’s what he’s been. I love AD and the fact that he’s proving a lot of people wrong and doing what he’s capable of.”
ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter Cameron Wolfe contributed to this story.