Adrian Peterson didn’t even hesitate. Not for a second. Sure, he’s been in the league for 14 seasons now and almost quintupled the league average for an NFL career. But he’s a future Hall of Famer, so that’s expected.
What came Thursday was not. Yes, he’s hinted at it before, but usually it’s relegated to quarterbacks and specialists and the occasional offensive lineman who even considers playing in the NFL at the age of 40.
For the rest of the league, it’s essentially unheard of. But don’t tell that to Peterson.
“I’m 35 right now? Forty is a good number,” Peterson said, answering a question about how long he thinks he can play. “Forty is a good number.”
It might sound outlandish, except when you look at what he’s doing at age 35 as the Detroit Lions’ lead running back. He’s gained 209 yards on 43 carries and his 4.9 yards per carry average is the highest he’s had since 2012, when he gained over 2,000 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry.
It’s unlikely that pace sustains – he’s more often than not been in the 4.2-to-4.5 yards per carry range the last handful of seasons – but that it’s even a question is impressive.
It is rare but not unprecedented.
Other high-level backs have shown productivity at age 35. Emmitt Smith ran 267 times for 937 yards and nine touchdowns in 2004, his last year in the league. Frank Gore, still playing at age 37, had 156 carries for 722 yards when he was 35 in 2018 for Miami.
Marcus Allen had 207 carries for 890 yards and five touchdowns with the Chiefs in 1995 and John Riggins might have had the most impressive season of all, rushing 327 times for 1,239 yards and a league-best 14 touchdowns for Washington in 1984.
Most of the Top 20 rushing yards leaders in NFL history were retired by the time they hit 35, a combination of walking away from the game to do other things or the productivity no longer being there.
“I sit here and look at Aaron Rodgers, guys that came before me, Tom Brady. Of course, they are not playing the running back position so I get it from that standpoint why a lot of people would look at it and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s so amazing,’ “ Peterson said. “But to me, it’s like, it’s not amazing to me. I still feel good, feel young, feel fresh. My recovery is pretty much the same and the body feels fresh.
“I think it all comes down to your mentality and how you approach the game mentally and physically just being able to take care of your body.”
Peterson taking care of his body is a non-issue. Remember, Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards less than a year after tearing his ACL in 2011 – something that was essentially unheard of at the time. He’s a player who, along with Trent Williams, opened his own gym, O Athletik, and trains there consistently.
There, he said, they’ll have younger players come in. He might not beat them on every rep, but his mentality is to do his best to try and do so. It’s what keeps pushing him. His approach to workouts has essentially been to never cheat himself – something that too many people, regardless of whether you’re a professional athlete, a recreational one or someone training just to try and stay in shape, end up doing.
“It’s one thing to go and work out and go through the motion and just get through the workout,” Peterson said. “It’s another thing to mentally lock in and say, you know what, I’m going to give everything I have to this workout and that’s how you’re able to become stronger mentally and to push your body to a different level because you have experience, that burn, that makes a lot of people shut down.
“When you push through that burn, maybe you got to go three-quarters but no one knows like you if you’re cheating or if you’re giving it everything you got. That’s the test.”
It’s a test he’s largely passed as his body has continually taken the pounding of being an NFL running back. Yet he can deliver blows running the ball with similar ferocity as NFL defenders trying to hit him. So Lions coaches have not been overly concerned with managing Peterson’s carries or workload because not only do they believe he can handle it, but Peterson believes he can.
And after he woke up feeling remarkably fresh following a 22-carry-75-yard game last Sunday against Arizona, there’s evidence to buy into that, too.
“This guy is a freak of nature now,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “I don’t know where that wall is or where he’s going to hit it. The guy is always asking for more. He is in great shape. He takes care of his body. He does all those little things to set himself up for that success.”
It’s something other players have noticed. Receiver Marvin Jones Jr. said after seeing Peterson move as he has the last three weeks he can “definitely” see him playing at 40 – describing it as “an easy call.” And the influence Peterson has had has gone beyond his own position group as well.
“It’s honestly, for me, kind of surreal to see him performing at the high level that he is at that age is incredible,” right tackle Tyrell Crosby said. “It’s great for us, I’m not a running back but to see how he approaches practice and approaches games at that age.
“He’s going to be a Hall of Fame guy, just to have the opportunity to see how he approaches everything is awesome for me just so I can kind of study him to see what makes him great.”