By Jason Keidel
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In a league built on parity, parody, and a tectonic shift in aesthetics over the last decade, the NFL has legislated the quarterback into the protagonist, antagonist and progenitor of the pass-drenched pro offenses. The new, pyrotechnic rhythms keep fans glued to their seats, bookmakers on speed-dial, and rampant carpel tunnel for fantasy football geeks who aren’t old enough and don’t have the sentimentality for smash-mouth football and stout defenses. Chicks aren’t the only ones who dig the long ball.
But when pondering this NFL season, replete with parity and parody and predictablilty – with the blue bloods of football like the Patriots and Packers (my Super Bowl prediction) on course to make deep winter runs toward New Orleans, it’s impossible to peg an obvious MVP, even in the shadow of the season’s final week.
With QBs posting Playstation statistics, the natural impulse is to just draw straws and see if Peyton, Tom, or Aaron pop out as the NFL’s most valuable player.
In the latest Sports Illustrated, Peter King couldn’t decide between Adrian Peterson and Petyon Manning as Comeback Player of the Year, an award that could easily have dual winners in 2012, what with Manning overcoming fusion surgery on his spine and three other neck surgeries, switched teams, altitudes and attitudes while miraculously marching the Denver Broncos to the the best record in the AFC. The fact that he’s playing decently, much less dominantly, speaks to his gift and grit.
But it says here that Adrian Peterson is not only the comeback player of the year, but the league’s player of the year. Most mortals would just be limping back to practice now after shredding their knees 12 months ago. Even by the draconian, prison-camp work ethic and hard-hat ethos among NFL players who play with torn tendons, snapped limbs, and battered brains, Peterson’s season is historically sublime.
Not only did Peterson recover a good six months ahead of schedule, he has gotten better as the season has progressed. And he’s hardly a compiler, evidenced by his 6 yards per-carry, galaxies ahead of the pack. He’s 408 yards ahead of the second-leading rusher, and is averaging an obscene 125 yards per game. (No one else even averages 100.) He also has 23 rushes of over 20 yards. (No one else even has 15 such rushes.)
And while Manning’s adjustment to a new neck and new receivers is astonishing and would inherit the requisite hardware, he gets help from an ornery defense led by Von Miller, a decent running game, and skilled wideouts. Adrian Peterson is averaging six yards per carry when the world knows he’s not just the first option but also the second and third. Christian Ponder is hardly provoking ulcers or insomnia among opposing coordinators.
At the end of the day, it’s Peterson left, Peterson, right, Peterson up the middle. And despite defenses stuffing a village in the box to corral the stallion of running backs, Peterson is just a little more than 200 yards from breaking Eric Dickerson’s 30-year chokehold on the rushing record for one season (2,105 yards). Ponder has not improved nearly as much as expected, and Toby Gerhart is hardly Roger Craig, someone to spell Peterson when the bionic back needs a breather.
Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback on Earth. Tom Brady is having a resplendent season. And the elder Manning has reminded us that Eli still has much competition for best QB in the family. But the top five quarterbacks are practically interchangeable. Depending on health and wealth at wide receiver, any of the aforementioned signal-callers can lay claim to an MVP in any given year.
The competition committee has practically legislated the running back from relevance by making the quarterback virtually untouchable and making bump-and-run coverage impossible. For the first 30 years of my life receivers ran across the middle with their heads on a swivel, adrenaline pumping like gasoline, their alligator arms ready to retract as soon as some psychotic safety galloped and grunted his way. Now, the moment a QB is insulted by a defender’s ill-placed fist, he merely pouts at some fawning referee and is granted a flag.
The term “throwback” is thrown around so promiscuously that it has lost nearly all it’s heft. But Adrian Peterson clearly calls us to another time. Most men of my vintage grew up during the days of the monolithic halfback, when Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett, Franco Harris, Billy Simms, William Andrews, and Walter Payton were glued behind the quarterback for years. You knew who would be handed the pigskin and yet they still managed to grind out five yards. And, if there was a five-foot crack in the line, they could breeze through the line for forty yards, if not more.
“Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” could be Lombardi’s signature mantra. Jimmy Johnson, among many coaches, loved to regurgitate the idea that will, more than skill, is what distinguishes good teams from great teams. It certainly separates players, and the indefatigable Peterson is on the brink of history because of his mystery, regenerating like Wolverine. It wouldn’t shock anyone to find that Peterson was indeed a mutant, sprung by some controlled genetics laboratory.
If nothing else, this could be the last time a running back has an authentic shot at the MVP. With passers routinely cracking 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns, with microscopic interceptions and incompletions, the NFL has less and less use for a grinder. So while, yes, you need a QB more than an RB to win consistently in the NFL, some players soar so far above their peers that they earn the ultimate nod. Adrian Peterson is a beast among beasts, a man among men, and the MVP among mortals.