WASHINGTON — This is both a fair and very unexpected statement about the 2018 Washington Redskins: The ‘Skins go as Adrian Peterson goes.
That was evident in Sunday’s dominant 31-17 win over the Green Bay Packers, as Peterson slashed his way to 120 yards and two touchdowns on just 19 carries, the kind of damage the man nicknamed “All Day” used to inflict upon the Packers when he was a Minnesota Viking in his prime.
Peterson is one of the NFL’s best early season feel-good stories, a 33-year-old running back rebounding from a leg injury to rush for 236 yards and three touchdowns in his first three games as a Redskin, despite joining the team at the end of training camp. If Peterson continues his current pace — approximately 280 carries for 1,180 yards and 15 touchdowns — he’s the cinch pick for Comeback Player of the Year.
But for a running back in Burgundy and Gold, those numbers would mean an inevitable comparison to Redskins legend John Riggins.
Younger ‘Skins fans probably know Riggins primarily as the affable analyst that once said owner Dan Snyder is a “bad guy” with a “dark heart.” But fans old enough to vividly remember the Redskins’ glory years remember Riggo as “The Diesel,” the 30-something steamroller that played his best football when most running backs were retiring — and doing so for Super Bowl teams.
When Riggins was 33, he rushed for 553 yards in a strike-shortened 1982 season that ended with the Redskins’ first Super Bowl victory — one punctuated with his famous touchdown run on 4th-and-1 that ensured Riggins could drink for free in Washington for the rest of his life. While that yardage total doesn’t sound like much, if you extrapolate those 553 yards to 16 games it’s eerily close to Peterson’s projected rate this season.
As an encore, Riggins posted his lone All-Pro season as the key cog in the record-setting 1983 Redskins offense, rushing for 1,347 yards and 24 touchdowns on 375 carries — all career highs. His touchdown total was an NFL record at the time, as was the ‘Skins’ 541 points scored that season. Not bad for a 34-year-old playing in his 12th season.
In fact, Riggo would play two more seasons at a pretty productive rate, finishing his career with 11,352 yards and 104 touchdowns. Peterson, currently playing his 12th season, already has close to 1,000 more yards than Riggins and only two fewer touchdowns. Though their career trajectories aren’t exactly the same, it’s notable that Peterson has become the driving force of the Redskins rushing attack during football’s age of pass-first offenses that have rendered workhorse running backs nearly extinct, and for a team he shouldn’t even be on.
The only reason the Redskins signed Peterson is because highly-regarded rookie Derrius Guice suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason opener. Even still, Peterson had to have a strong performance in the third preseason game to make the team fresh off the street. If either of those scenarios turn out differently, Peterson is still home with the threat of having to watch the 2018 season from his couch.
“(It was) rough. I think I was able to put things in perspective,” Peterson said to Peter King of NBC Sports after the game. “In my last year in Minnesota, I didn’t play a lot. In New Orleans, I had a short visit. In Arizona, I got a leg injury. This is a league of ‘what have you done for me lately.’ You know that. When someone else has the platform to write the story, that sucks. When I have the platform, which I have now, I can control the story.”
So far, that story involves a former MVP demonstrating nothing but gratitude for the chance to play again, a sentiment that fittingly came on the same day Tiger Woods won his first PGA tournament in five years.
If Peterson stays healthy, the next chapter undoubtedly includes overtaking Riggins for sixth place on the all-time rushing touchdown list — and a chance to add to the legend of Redskins running backs enjoying a late-career renaissance.
I learned in 2012 not to doubt Peterson. After tearing up his knee and a late season game against the Redskins in 2011, Peterson not only recovered to play Week 1 of 2012 campaign — he came nine yards shy of the single season rushing record to win Comeback Player of the Year and MVP. Playing well into his 30s should be no sweat compared to a superhero feat like that.
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