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Adrian Peterson and the Quest for 2,500

Adrian Peterson

FOX Sports sideline reporter Pam Oliver was the first to deliver the news. Only moments after the Vikings’ 2012 regular season ended, Oliver set about informingAdrian Peterson of his high-profile disappointment.

As Oliver stopped Peterson on his way off Mall of America Field, the final tallies were official, and the Viking star’s 2,097 rushing yards — including 199 in a playoff-clinching win over Green Bay that afternoon — had not surpassed the 2,105 yards Eric Dickerson amassed in 1984.

Nine yards shy of a new record. Nine measly yards.

“You played your heart out,” Oliver said. “Nine yards. Boy. That’s got to hurt.”

Peterson recoiled with surprise.

“Nine yards what?” he questioned. “Nine yards what? From breaking it?”

“That’s what I heard,” Oliver said.

Peterson shook his head.

“Oh. Well, ultimately, we got the ‘W.’ And that was my main focus coming into the game. I said, ‘If it happens, it happens. But don’t focus on it.’”

Still, Peterson’s initial shock was obvious. And for a moment — for the next couple weeks, really — his mind-boggling productivity in a comeback season for the ages was often footnoted by those nine yards he didn’t get.

Oliver was the first to ask. But fans would follow. Reporters, too.

And when Peterson was asked for the 328th time to summarize his deflation in not being able to topple Dickerson, he finally just shrugged, certain that those nine yards he didn’t gain were not more significant than the 2,097 he had churned out.

Those nine yards certainly weren’t more meaningful than the 861 he put up in December alone, including a clutch 26-yard dash on his final regular-season carry, the one that put a rookie kicker in position for a last-second game-winning chip shot.

Those missing nine yards weren’t more important than the Vikings’ 10 wins, their surprising playoff berth or the MVP award Peterson earned.

“It just shows me how people are never pleased,” Peterson says.

Yet as the thought of those nine yards twisted inside his hyper-competitive, ultra-ambitious mind, he quickly settled on a new number: 2,500.

Yep, this is Peterson’s rushing yardage wish for 2013. It’s the MVP’s new goal, outlandish and intriguing all at once.

Sure, 2,500 seems like a preposterous bar to set. After all, of the six running backs to previously rush for 2,000 yards in a season, only one topped 1,400 the following year. That was Barry Sanders, who had 1,491 yards in 1998 a year after gaining 2,053 with the Lions.

But with a goal system that Vikings coach Leslie Frazier labels as “name it and claim it,” Peterson asks that everyone view 2,500 yards as attainable, not impossible.

“All things are possible through God who strengthens me,” Peterson says. “That’s a mark I want to reach. No one has ever tried to accomplish something like that.”

Peterson has now begun this quest: The march toward 2,500.

This is what he has mapped out for his encore to a year in which he posted the second-greatest rushing season in history after overcoming major reconstructive surgery on his left knee.

And only two days after the Vikings bowed out of last season’s playoffs, Peterson had already started gathering believers.

“I really don’t feel like it’s out of reach,” Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton says. “You look at it and it’s what, around 155 yards per game? With him, that’s doable.”

Technically, Peterson will have to average 156.25 yards per game to reach 2,500. But last year, he topped 150 yards seven times in the final 10 games.

“With Adrian and the way he goes after things, if 2,500 yards is in his sights, there’s no reason to question it,” right guard Brandon Fusco says.

And then there’s Jared Allen, a five-time Pro Bowler who in 2011 fell just short of a prestigious NFL single-season record himself. Allen’s 22 sacks that season were 0.5 shy of Michael Strahan’s all-time record, a magnificent season with opponents always game-planning to limit him.

But then in 2012, Allen battled injuries, faced increased attention from offensive coordinators and wound up with only 12 sacks in his sequel season.

So, yeah, he knows the challenge of trying to better a career year. Still, Allen feels nothing but love for Peterson’s push toward 2,500.

“With that dude? It’s logical,” Allen says. “And yeah, that’s crazy. … But I think too, with the way the league is now as such a pass-dominant league, you’re seeing smaller fronts. You’re not having that 330-pound nose tackle anymore. You’ve got to have guys there who can rush the passer because of these spread offenses and these check-down systems. So you get a team like us that likes to run the ball with a back like Adrian and smaller (defenders) on the field, 2,500 might not be a stretch.”

OK, so maybe at this point Peterson should be granted the license to dream big. Or perhaps, more precisely, to strive big.

Just consider the 2012 calendar year. On New Year’s Day, he was still in an Alabama hospital bed, two days removed from what could have been a career-derailing operation.

Immediately following ACL and MCL surgery, Peterson’s 2012 return seemed iffy at best. Coming back from an injury that severe, logic said, meant that Peterson would be lucky to be back at full strength by October, fortunate to even make a push at 1,000 yards. Instead, by Dec. 31, Peterson was waking up in the Twin Cities with those 2,097 yards under his belt, the star who had taken his game to a new level while propelling his team into the postseason.

Peterson’s production never tailed off, either. Not after the Vikings lost top receiver Percy Harvin in Week 9 to a season-ending ankle injury. Not after second-year quarterback Christian Ponder malfunctioned into a maddening stretch of midseason inconsistency.

During the final eight games, Peterson actually accumulated more rushing yards (1,322) than Ponder had passing yards (1,192).

Oh, and that ridiculous finishing charge, an average of 172 yards per game and 6.4 yards per carry over the final five weeks? Turns out Peterson did all that with a sports hernia injury that required surgery after the season.

Not once over the final six weeks did Peterson deliver a full week of practice, limited most weeks to just a Friday cameo. Yet on Sundays, he never showed signs of pain or fatigue.

Said Frazier: “I’d talk to him on those Fridays when he would get in some practice time and say, ‘What do you think?’ He’d say, ‘Coach, I’ll be ready. I’ll be ready.’ But I ­couldn’t always tell if he was going to be ready. And you’d go through warm-ups in pregame, and it was like, ‘Man, he’s going to be OK.’

“But still in the back of your mind you’re just wondering if he can finish. And then he’d break a long run and you’re like, ‘He’s different.’”

Peterson’s path back to such an otherworldly level was paved by positivity in the wake of his knee injury. It started even before he left the hospital and was certainly evident when he met the media for the first time two weeks later.

It was then that he first vowed not only to be back for the season opener on Sept. 9 but also to return better than ever.

Peterson’s promises were not hollow, and he continued oozing optimism during his time working with physical therapist Russ Paine in Houston.

Paine marveled first at Peterson’s genuine friendliness and push to encourage other patients at the facility. Then Paine watched as Peterson attacked his own recovery with so much purpose.

People kept reminding Peterson he’d never be the same back he was before the injury. Which gave him two options: to come back a bit slower and less explosive, or to return better than he’d ever been.

Paine understood why Peterson, against all common sense, promised to be back starting on Sept. 9. Even with the Vikings reminding him that caution and patience were acceptable, Peterson craved the added pressure.

“It forced him to his ultimate,” Paine says. “When you have someone like him who’s an absolute superhuman and better than everyone else, he could be at 90 percent and still wow everyone. But when you’re in the top half of one percent of the world’s athletes and you then push yourself to focus and achieve at that level, then you become a freaking superstar.

“That’s what separates Adrian.”

Vikings strength and conditioning coach Tom Kanavy and head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman tapped into Peterson’s intensity in the early parts of training camp. The Vikings cautiously set Peterson aside on the Physically Unable to Perform list when camp opened.

But Peterson, while understanding the team’s logic, was agitated by the move and decided he’d attack his isolated rehab work in a manner where he’d finish each day having exerted himself more than any player who had engaged in the full practice.

Sugarman’s amazement only heightened when thinking back to the flood of thoughts he had when approaching Peterson immediately after the running back’s knee blew out on Christmas Eve 2011.

“I knew instantly the gravity of what had happened,” Sugarman says. “And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these coming months are going to be filled with pressure and scrutiny. This ­wasn’t somebody nobody had ever heard of. This is the best running back in the National Football League. There were going to be a lot of eyes on him.”

Which is what Peterson wanted. After one particularly demanding rehab session in training camp, Kanavy asked Peterson to finish the day with a sequence in which he ran speed ladders, then immediately followed each set with a 40-yard dash. Peterson was torching the grass, so much so that Kanavy secretly timed several of the 40s. Not one registered above 4.8 seconds, with Peterson frequently dipping into the low 4.5s.

Says Kanavy: “When you have a genetic freak who had always kept himself in tip-top shape and then sets out to absolutely attack the rehab, that is what the result is. Everybody got a chance to see it. And it was at a level surprising to everyone other than Adrian.”

Week by week, Peterson’s odds-defying comeback gathered steam. He delivered the longest run of his career in Week 13 at Green Bay, bursting 82 yards for a touchdown on a day when he ripped off 210 yards on only 21 carries.

He then proceeded to match that 82-yard run two weeks later in St. Louis on his way to a season-best 212 yards. In all, Peterson tied an NFL record with seven runs of 50 yards or longer. No wonder that 2,500-yard landmark doesn’t seem as ridiculous as it should.

Granted, the Vikings know that as a team, they’ll be far better off if they can diversify their offense. The goal is to revive a passing attack that ranked 31st in the league last season, to not give opponents the luxury of knowing Peterson will touch the ball 24 times per game like he did last season.

Realistically, 1,700 or 1,800 yards would be marvelous.

But hey, if the MVP running back wants to make a push at 2,500, you give him the green light.

“I think it’s a good goal to have if you’re Adrian Peterson,” Frazier says. “He’s more than capable of getting it accomplished.”

Heck, look at what Peterson did last fall, gathering new acolytes week after week.

“I feel that a lot of people who doubted me became believers,” he says. “The rewards and accomplishments are good. But being able to change someone’s mindset, whether it’s a little kid or grown-ups, and make them believe differently and look at things in a different light, that’s the ultimate goal.”

Even Allen admits that Peterson’s positive energy had stimulated the entire team’s imagination, pushing them to dream bigger.

“Maybe I can get 2,000 sacks,” Allen jokes.

Hearing that, Peterson smiles. “That’s what I’m talking about,” he says. “He wasn’t talking about 2,000 sacks last year or the year before.”

So now, without skepticism, perhaps we should all begin talking about 2,500 yards.

Written by Dan Wiederer for Athlon Sports. Visit our online store to order your 2013 Pro Football preview magazine to get in-depth team previews and more analysis on the 2013 NFL season.