Adrian Peterson tore his left ACL and MCL on Christmas Eve 2011. Of the many historically remarkable aspects of his recovery—that he played Week 1 of 2012, having missed just one game; that he is not just the NFL's leading rusher but is also on pace to join Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and O.J. Simpson as the only backs to average more than 100 yards per game and at least 5.7 yards per carry in the same season (right now, he's at 112.8 and 5.8)—the most remarkable one might be that he has accomplished all this while still healing. In other words, Peterson is still not at 100%.
Sometimes, particularly during one of his long, slaloming runs—Peterson has 13 carries of at least 20 yards—he can feel scar tissue in his knee breaking up. "It's like a little pop, a little grind," says the two-time All-Pro. "It's painful. But then it feels rejuvenated—stronger, more flexible." Think of that scene in Forrest Gump when our hero finally, joyfully breaks free of his leg braces to escape pursuing bullies. And keeps. On. Running.
With surgeries and rehab procedures evolving, an ACL injury is no longer a deathblow to a running back's career, as was the case even 15 years ago. (MCL injuries are less serious; unlike ACLs, they regenerate naturally.) Nevertheless, the comebacks to the field of those who have recently suffered such setbacks have been a mixed bag (chart, right). Of the four other prominent backs who tore an ACL last season—Jamaal Charles, Tim Hightower, Rashard Mendenhall and Knowshon Moreno—only Charles has returned to any semblance of his former self, on pace through this week for 1,314 yards. Of course, he had three more months than Peterson to heal.
Theories abound as to how Peterson, 27, has so quickly recovered. NFL.com recently reported that his surgeon, James Andrews, told Peterson's parents postsurgery that the inside of his knee looked like that of "a newborn baby," an image that points toward one conclusion: Peterson, like Forrest Gump, is one of a kind. "Things have changed a lot compared to 20 or 25 years ago," says Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, whose own playing career at cornerback was ended in 1986, at 26, by a torn ACL. "But [when] you see guys come back from this injury, it's their second year back in which they perform like Adrian has. For him to play at such a high level this year, it's incredible."
As Peterson's knee has gradually grown healthier, his performance has improved: In his first four games this year he averaged 83.0 rushing yards. In his last four: 157.3. Still, he knows there's room to grow. "I'm looking at my legs all the time, and I see how much more defined my right one is," he says. "The left is strong—stronger than half the legs in the NFL—but knowing how much stronger it's going to be, that's how I know I'm going to continue to run better."
If he does, he will eclipse 2,000 yards, making his not just the greatest season by a back coming off ACL surgery but, arguably, the greatest season by a running back ever.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
Torn left ACL in Week 16 of 2011
GAMES MISSED: 1
Torn left ACL in Week 14 of 2009
GAMES MISSED: 3
Torn left ACL in Week 3 of 2007
GAMES MISSED: 13
Torn right ACL in Week 7 of 2007
GAMES MISSED: 9
Torn right ACL in Week 5 of 2005
GAMES MISSED: 11
Torn right ACL in 2002 preseason
GAMES MISSED: 20
Torn left ACL in 2001 preseason
GAMES MISSED: 18
*Played more than three fourths of the season in which he was injured; stats are projected through end of that season
**Played less than three fourths of the season in which he was injured; stats from previous year
BRIAN PETERSON/MCT/ABACAUSA.COM (PETERSON)
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (SMITH)
DAVID BERGMAN (MCALLISTER IN WHITE)
BILL FRAKES (MCALLISTER IN BLACK)
BECK DIEFENBACH/REUTERS (RHODES)
BOB ROSATO (BROWN)
JOHN IACONO (LEWIS)