Adrian Peterson’s 2012 Season Was the Greatest Rushing Performance Ever

In the NFL’s current quarterback-dominated era, the prestigious AP Most Valuable Player award has only been given to a running back thrice.

2005: Shaun Alexander and Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck lead the Seattle Seahawks to the NFL’s best regular season record.

2006: LaDainian Tomlinson and Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers lead the San Diego Chargers to the NFL’s best regular season record.

The script was different in 2012. Seven teams finished with more wins than the Minnesota Vikings. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder epitomized mediocrity — the Pro Bowl was never an option.

Nevertheless, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson won MVP honors over legendary quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

How?

“All Day”

Adrian Peterson’s football career is not the underdog cliche that everybody craves.

Even at a young age, it was clear that he was a unique talent that was one day going to play in the pros. While dominating in the youth leagues, Peterson’s coach stated that “we would watch AD play in the NFL one day.” AD was Peterson’s nickname, short for ‘All Day’ because his father said that he could literally go all day. It’s a fitting moniker.

As a high school senior in 2003, Peterson rushed for 2,960 yards on 252 attempts, an average of 11.7 yards per carry, and 32 touchdowns. His coach, Jeff Harrell, told him to “do something special” in his final game for Palestine High School. Peterson answered the call to action by putting up 350 yards and 6 touchdowns — in the first half. He was a high school legend. Peterson was touted as the best running back out of Texas since the great Eric Dickerson. After games, opposing players would ask for autographs. It was to nobody’s surprise that he was the consensus highest-ranked player in the nation

In his last game as a high-schooler, Peterson played in the Army All-American Bowl. He scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns and earned MVP honors. The highlight of the night was certainly this powerful run where he ran over multiple defenders:

Immediately after the game, Peterson was given the U.S. Army Player of the Year Award, which is the high school equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. While accepting the award, Peterson announced his intentions to attend the University of Oklahoma. The best high school player in the nation was going to be a Sooner.

The Sooner The Better

Oklahoma was coming off of an extremely successful season. Quarterback Jason White was the reigning Heisman winner after leading the Sooners to an appearance in the BCS National Championship. The offense was exceptional across the board. Top receiver Mark Clayton would go on to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft along with offensive tackle Jammal Brown.

Yet a freshman from a small town lodged between Houston and Dallas was the one who stole the show.

As a true freshman, Peterson led the nation in carries. The 19-year-old was the heart of an offense that was led by a Heisman winner at quarterback. He certainly converted on his chances. Peterson shattered the NCAA freshman rushing yardage record as he put up 1,925 yards along with 15 touchdowns.

Peterson was the embodiment of toughness. Approximately two-thirds of his rushing yards came after he had been hit. It wasn’t until his 10th outing as a freshman that he was held to under 100 yards. Not even in a close game against Texas A&M, where Peterson dislocated his shoulder in the first half and later came back to log 101 yards and a touchdown. The presence of Adrian Peterson transformed the Sooners’ rushing offense.

 Yards Per CarryRank
2003 (Without Peterson)3.862nd
2004 (With Peterson)4.818th

Even on that 2004 Sooners team with Peterson, Kejuan Harris rushed for 513 yards on 129 carries, a mere 4.0 yards per carry average. Meanwhile, Peterson averaged 5.7 yards per rushing attempt. The team’s average yards per carry could have been even higher. It shows that the astronomical improvement was entirely due to the greatness of Adrian Peterson.

Peterson was the first Oklahoma freshman to be recognized as a First-Team All-American. He finished second in the Heisman voting behind USC quarterback Matt Leinart.

Over the next two years as a Sooner, Peterson’s performance was unfortunately hampered by injuries. Going into the 2007 NFL Draft, this was a major concern. He suffered a high ankle sprain his sophomore year and a broken collarbone his junior (and final) year. Former legend Deion Sanders put it best: “He has the vision of a Marshall Faulk, the power of an Earl Campbell, and the speed of an Eric Dickerson. Let’s pray he has the endurance of an Emmitt Smith.”

Peterson fell to the Minnesota Vikings who held the 7th overall pick in the draft. In an interview after the draft, Peterson said, “I’m a player who is coming in with the determination to turn a team around. I want to help my team get to the playoffs, win…and run wild.”

He got his wish.

The Injury

After four years in the NFL, Adrian Peterson was widely considered the best running back in football. He averaged 1445 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns per season from 2007-2010. He was a Pro Bowler in his first four seasons. More notably, Peterson won First-Team All-Pro honors in 2008 and 2009 and Second-Team All-Pro Honors in 2007 and 2010. Every year of his career, he was an All-Pro player.

But in 2011, Peterson only played 12 games before he was carted off with a knee injury against the Washington Redskins. It wasn’t just any standard knee injury.

Peterson suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. This is the worst case scenario whenever a player suffers a knee injury. Peterson knew it too. “Anytime you take a blow to the knee like that, you’re concerned about the ACL, MCL,” he said before learning the extent of his injury. “I’m trying to stay as positive as I can.” His concern was valid.

Many people speculated that the damage would end his career. After all, athletes rarely came back from an injury like this. Peterson required reconstructive surgery on his knee. How would he still have the same burst of speed that he used to?

2012

As the start of the 2012 regular season was near, it wasn’t clear if Peterson would even be able to play in Week 1. He was listed as “questionable” on the injury report. Head coach Leslie Frazier says Peterson would be a game-time decision. Peterson felt that he was good to go and stated that if he was forced to sit, it would be a “hard pill to swallow.”

Peterson did end up playing. He rushed for 84 yards on 17 carries along with a pair of touchdowns. Through the first 6 games, Peterson was off to a solid start. He was rushing for 4.42 yards per carry and was on pace for 1,331 yards and 5 touchdowns on the season. It would be a career year for most running backs, but these numbers were average for Adrian Peterson.

In the 7th game of the 2012 season against the Arizona Cardinals, whispers about whether Peterson was being held back by his previous injury were silenced.

On 23 rushes, Peterson logged 153 yards and a touchdown. In the next game, the Vikings played the Buccaneers, a team allowing the least yards per carry in the NFL. Peterson put up 123 yards and a score on just 15 rushes. In his 9th game, Peterson logged 182 yards and two touchdowns on just 17 carries against a stout Seattle defense. In this three-game span, Peterson was averaging an astounding 8.33 yards per carry. And Minnesota won just one of those games.

The Vikings were not a good football team. They finished 3-13 in the previous season. They retained quarterback Christian Ponder, who was never a particularly good quarterback. With Peterson performing as well as any running back in NFL history, they still found a way to lose games. In that game against the Seahawks, Peterson averaged over 10 yards per carry. The Vikings lost by 10 anyway because of Christian Ponder’s extremely poor performance — 63 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a 37.3 passer rating.

Over the next 5 games, Peterson continued to dominate and the Vikings continued to lose. Peterson’s best performance of the season was when he had 210 rushing yards and a touchdown on just 21 carries. That’s good for 10 yards per carry.

The Vikings lost by 9, thanks to Christian Ponder throwing for less than 150 yards and two interceptions.

Peterson had great games against great defenses. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, the #1 rushing defense in the league belonged to the Chicago Bears. In two games versus the Bears, Peterson averaged 5.3 yards per game and scored 2 touchdowns. They lost one of those games by 18 because of another horrible display by Ponder.

Two weeks later in St. Louis, Peterson rushed for 212 yards on 24 carries (8.83 YPC) and a touchdown against one of the best defenses in the league. The Vikings won this one by 14 despite another below average performance by Ponder.

In the final game of the season, Peterson carried his team to a victory that would send them to the playoffs. With 30 seconds to go and the game tied, Peterson got the carry and ran for 25 yards to put the Vikings into field goal position. Walsh nailed the kick and they won 37-34.

The Vikings went 5-2 in their last seven games to earn a playoff berth. In that seven-game stretch, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder passed for 1,129 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Peterson ran for 1,140 yards with seven total touchdowns.

The final run of the season may have been the most clutch, but it was disappointing in a different way. Peterson finished 9 yards short of Eric Dickerson’s 30-year-old record for single-season rushing yards. Dickerson did it on 31 more attempts — with Peterson’s rushing average on the season, he only needed two more.

Peterson ended the season with 2097 rushing yards on 348 carries — averaging 6.03 yards per carry.

To put that into perspective: In Peterson’s best season in college, he ran for 5.67 yards per carry.

Against far better competition and a weaker passing game (relative to other teams), Peterson played significantly better. He ran over any defenders that he was up against. Teams knew that the Vikings were going to run the ball and it was still extremely successful. There was no stopping Adrian Peterson.

That’s why he won Most Valuable Player honors. A running back winning isn’t unprecedented, but winning as Peterson did is. Against Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in an era that favored quarterbacks, Peterson was awarded the MVP award despite playing for a team that didn’t win their division.

As one voter put it, “Without him, the Vikings don’t just make the playoffs; they don’t make it to .500.”

Conclusion

There have been just 60 occasions in which a running back has rushed at least 348 (Peterson’s 2012 total) times in a single-season.

Different players handle the load differently. No one handles it like Adrian Peterson.

PlayerAttemptsYardsYards Per Attempt
Adrian Peterson34820976.03
Chris Johnson35820065.60
Eric Dickerson37921955.55
Jamal Lewis38720665.34
Ahman Green35518835.30
LaDainian Tomlinson34818155.22
Tiki Barber35718605.21
Earl Campbell37319345.18
Terrell Davis39220085.12
Shaun Alexander37018805.08

These are the 10 performances with as many running attempts as Adrian Peterson in 2012 and at least 5.00 yards per carry. No one comes close to Peterson’s average of 6.03 yards.

It’s unheard-of for a running back to win MVP in the modern era without putting up a ridiculous amount of touchdowns. Shaun Alexander scored 27 times on the ground in 2005. A record 28 touchdowns for Tomlinson in 2006. When Peterson won MVP, he had just 12 touchdowns. It’s a statistic which relies on exterior factors, like how many goal-line touches a running back gets. Still, it’s flashy and what fans look at before yards. The fact that Peterson won MVP with only 12 touchdowns is a testament to how impressive his season was.

Peterson obviously slowed down after 2012. Since then, he’s only played one full season. That was in 2015, where he led the league in rushing and was a First-Team All-Pro for the fourth time. Injuries and legal issues prevented him from reaching his potential. At the age of 33, he’s currently a very solid running back for the Redskins, but his days of putting up legendary numbers are over. His career would be viewed very differently if he wasn’t able to play in 2012. But he was. And that’s why his legacy is cemented as one of the greatest players to ever lace them up.