While we marvel over the age-defying feats of Tom Brady, another NFL legend lingers in the shadows planning his own unlikely accomplishments -- as long as a team will have him.
Adrian Peterson wants to play until he's 40 years old, and wants to make history in more ways than just merely remaining active in the NFL. He wants to break Emmitt Smith's all-time rushing record -- and win a ring.
"I'm just going to keep playing, I'm going to keep playing, trying to chase a championship," Peterson told TMZ. "And God's willing, within the process of doing that I'm able to catch Emmitt and pass him."
Smith achieved the mark in his age-33 season of 2002, breaking the record previously held by Walter Payton in a Week 8 game against the Seattle Seahawks. He stuck around for two more campaigns spent with the Arizona Cardinals before bowing out after the 2004 season, firmly in possession of the record with 18,355 career rushing yards.
Peterson is heading into his age-36 season and seems to have more tread on the tires than Smith did, considering Smith didn't see his age-36 season thanks to retirement. Smith's and Peterson's trajectories are different, though, thanks to the differences in eras in which they've played. For example: Smith's carries total (4,409) is significantly greater than Peterson's (3,192), while Peterson's yards-per-carry average is greater at 4.6 as opposed to Smith's 4.2.
Smith's run was dominant, posting 11 straight seasons of 1,000-plus rushing yards as Dallas' entrenched feature back before tailing off to campaigns of 975, 256 (in 10 games) and 937 in his final three years. Peterson has been much more up and down, roaming the NFL countryside in search of an employer for much of the last four seasons, taking handoffs for the Cardinals and Saints in 2017, Washington in 2018 and 2019, and the Lions in 2020. This nomadic journey followed a final season in Minnesota (2016) in which Peterson played just three games due to a knee injury that landed him on injured reserve for most of the year.
Still, he presses on, hoping to become a leading face of those waging war on Father Time.
"I want to set the bar at a different level," Peterson said. "I want to live and be a 40-year-old back out there rushing for 1,500 yards and amazing people still."
The time off has afforded Peterson extra gas in his tank beyond 35 years old. But as he learned in New Orleans and to a lesser degree in Detroit, he has to end up somewhere he might actually see significant reps. Otherwise, that goal of passing Smith -- he needs to gain 3,536 yards to do so -- will simply be unattainable.
"I feel like it's doable, you know, 150 carries, whatever it might be, two-hundred-some carries, whatever they ask me to do, I'll be prepared to go out there and execute," Peterson said. "A lot of teams are going towards that two-back system. Would it be a little harder to get to that 2,000 mark if you don't got the role like a Derrick Henry? Yeah. But once you get out there, you're balling, you're being productive, that increases your attempts and your opportunities to show what you can do and help the team be successful."
Peterson somewhat hedged against his lofty desires to become the all-time leading rusher -- a reality we wouldn't have thought to be all that absurd back in 2013, when Peterson had already overcome a torn ACL to break 2,000 rushing yards in the season that followed -- by pointing toward a pursuit of a championship. And the going might be a little easier when surrounded by a competitive team instead of slamming into a wall of defenders 15-20 times a game for a cellar dweller.
But in order to break Smith's mark, Peterson will have to average 884 yards per season for the next four years. At his career average of 4.6 yards per carry, that would require nearly 200 carries per season. At his average of 3.9 yards per carry posted in Detroit in 2020, it would require 226 carries -- and anyone averaging under four yards per carry likely isn't seeing over 220 attempts in a season, unless that team simply has no other option.
He'll need a nearly perfect convergence of circumstances to get it done. But we can't blame Peterson for making it clear he still believes he can do it. After all, it isn't over until the clock strikes triple zeroes -- and he'll need those zeroes in his rushing totals to get within striking distance of history.