A comparison of Adrian Peterson's career through his first six seasons shows he is right on pace to challenge the NFL's career rushing record held by Emmitt Smith. Unfortunately, needing to extend his career for another six to eight seasons, Peterson has the odds stacked against him.
Peterson is the Minnesota Vikings career rushing leader with 8,849 yards and 76 rushing touchdowns. He also holds the NFL single-game rushing record with 296 yards. Last season, after coming back from an ACL/MCL injury to his left knee, he finished with the second greatest rushing total in NFL history. With 2,097 yards, he was only nine yards from breaking Eric Dickerson's record set in 1984.
Peterson led the NFL averaging 131.1 yards per game. At one point, he had eight straight games with at least 100 yards. He also had a career long 82-yard touchdown run—twice, against the Packers in Week 13, and again three weeks later against the Rams.
After the season ended, it was revealed that Peterson played the final six regular season games, and the playoff game against the Packers, with a sports hernia. He gained 1,068 yards in those games—an average of 152.5 yards per game.
This guy is not from planet earth.
Still recovering from hernia surgery, he is setting his sights even higher, looking to rush for 2,500 yards this season. There's no reason to doubt that, if healthy, Peterson can achieve such a goal. Health will be the key of he is to break Smith's record.
In the first six seasons of his career, Smith had 8,956 yards, 107 yards more than Peterson at this point. Smith also played in 93 of 96 games at this point—four more than Peterson. The difference is just more than one game as Peterson has averaged 99.4 yards per game in his career.
Like Peterson. Smith led the NFL in rushing in his sixth season. It was the fourth, and last, time Smith would do so. His 1,773 yards in 1995 were the most in his career.
Averaging 1,493 yards per season in his first years, Smith's average dropped to 1,205 over the next six seasons—a decrease of 19.3 percent. In his final three seasons, his average dropped to 723 yards, another 40 percent decrease from seasons seven through 12.
Peterson needs to more than double his current rushing total in order to surpass Smith. At his current pace it will take 95.6 games—just under six full seasons, to gain the 9,507 yards he needs to set the record.
If Peterson's performance were to drop off by 20 percent, like Smith's, those 96 games increase to 120 games. That's 7.5 seasons without missing a game. The odds of that happening are very slim. Even before the knee injury, Peterson missed three games in his first four seasons. It's unlikely that he can play another seven seasons without missing a game.
That realistically means Peterson needs to play another eight seasons if he has any chance of breaking Smith's record.
While there's a chance his career could continue to track to that of Smith's, it's also possible it could follow that of another running back who was poised to set the all-time rushing mark.
After six seasons, LaDainian Tomlinson had 9,176 yards, averaging 1,529 yards per season—the highest mark among the top-five running backs. He was certainly on pace to break the record.
Like Smith and Peterson, Tomlinson led the NFL in rushing in his sixth season. Unfortunately, he was only able to average 901 yards per season over the next five years. In his last season, he rushed for only 280 yards in 14 games. He finished his career 4,671 yards short of the record.
If Peterson can achieve his goal of rushing for 2,500 yards in 2013, he will become the first player to ever rush for more than 2,000 yards in two seasons. If he does that, then anything is possible for this superhuman.
After predicting that he would be ready to open the 2012 season from his hospital bed following his knee surgery, and the his miraculous comeback that earned him MVP honors, it's not a matter of whether or not Peterson will become the NFL's all-time rusher—but when.