Adrian Peterson is having a monster year. The running back is poised to single-handedly lift the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs while possibly breaking Eric Dickerson's record for rushing yards (2,105) in a season. Seeing how Peterson dominates in his old-school way reminded me of watching Dickerson and another titan of the ground game: Jim Brown.
Knowing that Peterson has a chance to do something very special as the season comes to a close, I thought this would be a good time to place his game in the proper historical context by seeing how he stacks up against Brown and Dickerson. So I got together with John Wooten, a former Cleveland Browns guard who blocked for Brown, and who later worked for me with the Dallas Cowboys, to grade all three players, based on our firsthand knowledge of their skills and talents. We evaluated all three according to 14 key categories like quickness and balance, assigning them a number from one (poor ability) to nine (exceptional to rare ability), then totaling up the score for their final grade, which gave us the order that you see below.
1) Jim Brown
Cleveland Browns, 1957-1965
Brown could do anything you or he wanted. His skills weren't just limited to carrying the ball; he was an all-around athlete at Syracuse who excelled in basketball and lacrosse. He could also kick, and was a scratch golfer.
Brown had awesome running ability, whether he was going inside or outside. He also had amazing quickness, which is the most important factor when it comes to determining the success of a running back, even more so than speed. Lots of guys have speed but aren't quick; they need time to gather themselves before they make their first and second moves. A quick guy, meanwhile, can get from points A to B to C a lot faster than the speedy guy.
Brown led the league in rushing yards in eight of his nine seasons before retiring. If he hadn't left the game, he probably would've been the leading all-time rusher.
He was so good, he put up 232 rushing yards against the Cowboys on Sept. 22, 1963, even though the Browns ran a predictable offense, and Cowboys coach Tom Landry knew exactly what they were going to do.
2) Adrian Peterson
Minnesota Vikings, 2007-present
In today's pass-happy era, Peterson is a real throwback guy who definitely belongs in the same echelon as Brown and Dickerson. Look at Peterson's body. He's got thin ankles and thin lower legs, but he's able to generate amazing power from his knees on up.
Peterson is also one of the most competitive people I've ever been around. I saw him at the Playboy All-America Football Weekend in Phoenix in May 2006, before Peterson began his final season at Oklahoma. Peterson was determined to win all of the events, even the carnival-type ones, like mechanical-bull riding and quick-draw and roping contests. Then, of course, there was that performance in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, when he ran out with an injured collarbone and gave his all when most people would have stayed on the sideline.
There's only one thing to watch out for with Peterson: Don't ever shake his hand. If you do, you'll most likely end up with a cracked bone, because he's got the firmest handshake I've ever encountered in my life.
3) Eric Dickerson
A high runner like Peterson, Dickerson had such great playing speed that he would just run by you before you knew what had happened. A very aggressive player, he would try to knock you over.
Dickerson ran for 3,913 yards in his first two years in the league. He was a five-time all-pro player who went to six Pro Bowls by the time he retired; only Walter Payton had more career rushing yards at that point.
When I was with the Cowboys, we'd developed a kit for evaluating players called the black box. It consisted of mats that were rigged up with wires that would record things like a player's vertical (by timing how long he was in the air), giving us a self-contained way to measure a player's abilities. Dickerson was one of the best athletes we ever tested with that system.
John Robinson, the Rams' old coach, perhaps best summed up what made Dickerson special; he said that when Dickerson doesn't do something unbelievable, you're disappointed.
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