To make this list, you must belong in the same sentence as Adrian Peterson.
When comparing Peterson to other NFL runners historically, you have to take the complete package. You have to realize that the sum is indeed greater than the parts when evaluating NFL talent. NFL talent is aggregate. It is qualities stacked on top of qualities—interest compounding itself.
To make this list, you must have some combination of absolutely elite natural, physical gifts. Overwhelming gifts apparent to the eyeballs of even the most casual observer. When we talk about "the best ever," we can't back it up with stats alone.
We all know what Peterson has overcome to get to this point in the 2012 season, but the fact is: here we are. Peterson has come back from ACL surgery better than he was before, and this conversation is now legitimately warranted.
Is Adrian Peterson the best, ever?
Eric Dickerson is likely the first comparison that comes to one's mind when trying to describe Adrian Peterson.
Both are tall, powerful backs from Texas who run with a distinctive upright style through every level of the defense. Of every player in this column, Dickerson possessed a skill set that had the most in common with Peterson's.
They are not the same running back, though.
I found this very low-quality video that I hope will help me illustrate a point about functional strength versus power. In this play, facing an eight-man box, Dickerson gets a good lead block, but only has a split second to cut into the seam before it collapses from inside pursuit.
Dickerson had a type of strength to couple with his speed that I view as functional.
It takes an incredibly powerful human being to be able to shed the safety that comes in high from Dickerson's left side during this run. Due to his upright style, his body is pulled downward from behind in a manner very detrimental to forward momentum.
Somehow, he is not slowed down, and he made the play look easy—a common thread when observing Dickerson in his prime. He is different from Adrian Peterson in that Dickerson would glide. He didn't use his knees like weapons, and his "effortless" style almost made it look like he wasn't even running hard.
As we know, these are not traits reminiscent of Peterson. While Dickerson's power was functional and subtle, Peterson's is constantly on display. Peterson runs with anything but an "effortless glide." It looks like a ladder drill mixed with an attempted homicide.
If Adrian Peterson looks like Eric Dickerson, and he runs like Gale Sayers—at least to start the run.
It's the knees, the cuts and the delayed urgency through the second level of the defense. Sayers was a little bit smaller than Peterson at around 6'0" and 200 pounds. One cannot help but notice when watching back highlights such as these, though, that the extra inch and 20 pounds that AP has on Sayers doesn't seem too substantial given the changing level of competition.
Sayers is a big, powerful presence coming out of the backfield, compared to the competition, the same way Peterson is. You may notice that Peterson is a bit more violent at the point of attack and relies less on jukes and more on power in the open field.
Sayers is universally thought of as the best open-field runner in the history of the game. He had a powerful elusiveness to start the run, though, which was unrivaled by any runner since—until Adrian Peterson.
Sayers was only allowed (by whoever you believe governs these sorts of decisions in our lives) to be the player I am describing now for four short years.
Unlike Peterson, Sayers was unable to take advantage of our miracles of modern medicine. In 1968, a knee injury basically put his career on ice. To make this list, you have to have undeniable, obvious gifts that no rational person could help but notice. Before the injury, Sayers was operating on a whole different level.
The easiest way to describe O.J. Simpson is that he was just plain bigger and faster than everyone else.
The Juice was a track star as well as a gridiron legend-in-the-making during what was probably a very fun period in his life at USC. At the NFL level, he was the first player to ever eclipse the 2,000-yard mark that Adrian Peterson is gunning for in 2012.
Although five have busted off 2,000 yards since, Simpson remains the only player to do so in a 14-game season.
When you look at the highlights, you notice Peterson really doesn't have that much in common with Simpson outside of two things:
1) Both look like men among boys and/or lesser, smaller men on the football field.
2) Peterson plays on a team, like Simpson did, that is not very strong in other aspects of the scoring offense.
O.J. Simpson played at a height just a tad bit taller than Peterson—right at 6'2". Simpson was a more pure runner than Peterson is and ran with a signature smooth yet gangly gallop that may be more reminiscent of other current NFL players.
Take Darren McFadden, make him a little bit taller, then give him a dash of Arian Foster's lower body without sacrificing any speed. That terrifying football concoction is something like what defenses had to deal with when facing Simpson.
I'm at a loss for words when trying to compare Barry Sanders to Adrian Peterson, and that's saying something.
I didn't become an NFL writer by being at a loss for words when thinking about football.
The trait the two share is simple, and really, basically impossible to verbalize or really spell out.
It's magic. Must be. There's no other way to explain how Peterson can do the things he does, or how Sanders could possibly do things like what follows.
Sanders makes this list for his elusiveness and his vision. He is known as the hardest running back in NFL history to get your hands on. He single-handedly affected most every bit of the defensive game plan via being a constant threat to make a game-altering play with the bat of an eyelash.
For all the good Sanders did for his offense, it was his ability to bounce in, out, up and around that also got him in trouble. In games in which Sanders was contained, he was often "contained" in a manner that led to negative yardage on run plays in which he could not get loose.
We know that the bane of an NFL offensive coordinator's existence is negative plays on first and second downs.
Unlike Barry Sanders, there is a heavy dose of Earl Campbell in the current NFL phenom that is Adrian Peterson.
Campbell was not quite 6'0" and weighed at least 10 pounds more than Peterson through his entire NFL career. Campbell was a battering ram that was contained within a slightly stockier build than the casing that harnesses Peterson's fury.
Peterson and Campbell, Texas products, both burst onto the NFL scene leaving fans speechless as to how someone that big and powerful could be that fast. While Campbell was nowhere near as fast as Peterson, like Peterson, he ran faster than looked normal.
Campbell looked faster than he reasonably should be.
Peterson plays with Campbell's same desire for contact downfield. As opposed to making moves like Gale Sayers to throw the opponent out of position, both players have a shared tendency to "take it right at them," to put themselves on the offensive.
They are, after all, playing offense.
When a man this large, fast and powerful runs with an obvious precept in his mind that he is not the person being pursued but the pursuer, that is deadly.
The violence at the point of attack, the balance and the upfield motor put Earl Campbell squarely in our mix of running backs who were utterly and obviously transcendent in their on-field performance.
Sweetness. As you'll see in the video below, even Jim Brown wondered, "What kind of animal is this?"
Payton was a breed the likes of which the NFL had never seen and truly hasn't seen since.
While Payton was not quite as elusive as Barry Sanders, he almost was, which may be better. As mentioned previously, "elusiveness" is only a good term if you actually elude the defender. In the case that you can't, your goose is often cooked for a loss.
Payton was called "Sweetness" because he was a sweet guy personally. It had nothing to do with "sweet moves" on the football field or anything that resembled any sweet or flowery adjective. Payton was a workhorse runner that logged over 300 carries during 10 seasons in his career, and still only managed to miss one career game.
Like Peterson, Payton was relentless.
He was not as powerful in engaging defenders, but he was as obstinate in his resolve to not be tackled. What this ended up looking like often times resembled a pinball, bouncing upfield from body to body, then dashing into open space with other-worldly acceleration.
It's impossible to ignore the similarities between Payton and Peterson at the point of engagement with the defender. Payton is the Godfather of the stiff arm, a tactic we have seen Peterson take to a level that more closely resembles a choke-slam.
The only reason Peterson is more dominant than Payton in this phase is due, of course, to their difference in size. Payton and Peterson actually have fairly similar-looking bodies, except for the fact that Payton, at 5'10", was a good 3.5 inches shorter than Peterson.
The best of all time.
As good as the rest of this list is, Jim Brown represents the stack of NFL skills that someone will have to topple over to inherit the spot at the top of the heap.
When you watch highlights of Jim Brown, you can see a little bit of everything great about every one of the truly elite, natural physical specimens we have laid out here today. Some will say that the level of competition was not as good and that he couldn't do it in today's NFL.
To that I would say—look at the people blocking for him. They are not allowed to even extend their arms and get their hands on a defender's body. The rule change in 1978 made the life of the running back a whole lot easier regarding holes opening up. Jim Brown would absolutely ball in today's NFL.
Which brings us back to our original question: Is Adrian Peterson the best ever?
I'm with Gil Brandt, a renowned NFL personnel mind, and one of my fellow expert analysts for Mel Kiper's Global Exchange at PlaytheDraft.com.
In an interview with Berry Trammel of The Oklahoman this week, Brandt said Adrian Peterson has not taken Jim Brown's place at the top yet, but he may be knocking on the door:
“If you ask me today, I think Brown is better. If Peterson does somewhat next year what he's done this year, I'm very possible to change my mind.”
If 2012 has been any indication of future progress, we are very likely witnessing the greatest running back in NFL history, exactly one year removed from complete knee reconstruction.