Does Football Have a New Best-Ever Running Back?

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It may, if Adrian Peterson overcomes some big hurdles in the last two games of his so-far-incredible season.

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AP Photo/Seth Perlman

There isn't any question that Minnesota Viking running back Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the National Football League. The question is whether he's among the greatest runners ever to play the game.

Much of that judgment will depend on his performance in the last two games of the 2012 season. Peterson goes into his 15th game with 1812 yards. If he can average just 94 yards in those games, he'll be only the seventh man in NFL history to get 2000 yards in a season. If he can average 147 over those two games, he'll break Eric Dickerson's all-time, single-season NFL record of 2105 yards.

Though Dickerson holds the record, that doesn't necessarily meant that he had the best season of any NFL runner. If you took a poll of football writers and historians, most would probably rank the Cleveland Browns' Jim Brown, who retired in 1965 after just nine seasons, as the best ever. The three other candidates for best rushing season ever are Eric Dickerson (1984 for the Los Angeles Rams), Barry Sanders (1997 for the Detroit Lions) and, of course Peterson this year.

Back in Brown's era, the NFL played 14 regular season contests, and Brown not only averaged the most yards games per game (133.1) but had the highest average per rush (6.4). He also tops the chart in one other important stat: the difference between his yards per rush average and the league average. In 1963 Brown outrushed all other NFL backs by 2.3 yards per attempt.

Dickerson, Sanders, and now Peterson play a 16-game schedule, an increase of 14 percent over what Brown played. Figure it this way: If Jim Brown had played a 16-game schedule and gained yardage at the same rate he did in 1963 for 14 games, the record that Peterson would now be chasing is 2129 yards.

The game Brown played in is different from the one that Dickerson, Sanders, and now Peterson play. In the early 1960s, runners usually lined up this way: The player listed as fullback was directly in front of the quarterback with a halfback to either the right or left of him. Brown was one of the first NFL backs to line up in either position. Whoever played alongside him pretty much knew that his job would be to block for the franchise player.

In 1962 opposing defenses were keying on Brown and, for the first time ever, containing him. He just missed the 1000 yards mark for the only time in his career and his yards/rush average dropped to 4.1. That was under Coach Paul Brown. In 1963 Blanton Collier, one of the best offensive coaches of his day, designed a new scheme just for Brown: what we would come to know as the "I" formation, with the fullback or blocking back—or whatever you want to call him—lined up behind the QB and Brown behind him.

The key, though, was that wherever Brown lined up, he had an option to carry the ball straight ahead, if his blockers could open a hole, or cut to the outside. Free to improvise instead of hitting a designated spot in the line, Brown then obliterated all previous NFL running records. One can only wonder how much better his career statistics would look if the Browns had adopted such the running scheme several years earlier.

If Peterson eclipses Dickerson's record, he'll do it under some very tough circumstances. But that's far from impossible for someone who has already achieved the miraculous.

Nonetheless, Jim Brown changed the way NFL coaches thought about the running game. The designation of fullback and halfback pretty much disappeared from the pro football lexicon; from there on in, great runners were simply referred to as running backs.

Backs in the current game, like Peterson, can run out of an I formation, a two-tight-end set that places an extra beefy blocker on both the right and left side of the offensive line, or even a two-tight-end set with a blocking back in front of the runner. No matter which formation Minnesota has used this season, Peterson has flourished. He is a considerably better runner now than he was before a severe knee injury took him out last Christmas Eve against the Washington Redskins. From his rookie year in 2007 through his wounding last year, Peterson has averaged an impressive 4.8 yards/carry. So far this year he's gaining yards at the Brown-like rate of 6.3. That anyone could be having a season like Peterson in 2012 is amazing enough, but to come back from ACL surgery borders on unbelievable.

This Sunday, Peterson's Vikings will face perhaps the AFC's best team, the Texans at Houston. The Texans have been very effective in stopping the run, allowing just 93.2 rushing yards per gain and holding enemy runners to a 4.1 average. In the final week, they play their archrival Green Bay Packers in the friendly confines of the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome.

Not only is there a strong possibility that the Vikings will still be in the hunt for a Wild Card playoff spot in these games, but also that Houston and Green Bay will be playing for a first-round bye in the postseason. So if Peterson eclipses Dickerson's record, he'll do it under some very tough circumstances. But that's far from impossible for someone who has already achieved the miraculous.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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