Does Football Have a New Best-Ever Running Back?

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

adrian peterson apimages 615.jpg
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.

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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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