Quite a bit of talk is bandied about nowadays as to who is the better running back: Is it Adrian Peterson, the Vikings' powerhouse who wows crowds and worries defenders with his ability to hit the hole hard and gain yards after contact?
Or is it Chris Johnson, the fleet-of-foot phenom running for Tennessee who makes otherwise fast defensive backs look like they aren't even trying to catch him?
How does one decide?
We will, of course, have our favorites.
Titans' fans insist that there is no other back like Johnson, and they are justified in holding that opinion. His speed is otherworldly, he hits "gone" in about two steps, and he isn't even beginning to show signs of late-season fatigue.
Peterson, on the other hand, is a bruiser. While he can turn a fair rate of speed, he has the ability to find and hit the seam in the middle, burst through, and gain yardage he has no business gaining. At the goal line, the Vikings hand him the ball with confidence that he can score, evidenced by his 12 rushing touchdowns this year.
Now, I'm no dummy; I know full well that there are statisticians out there with much more ability, time, and access than I have who can refute the argument I am about to make at will. And that's the fun of running the numbers: Someone always shows up with something else to consider just when you think the job is done.
So, without any further ado, and no more gilding of the lily, let's begin, shall we?
Total Rushing Yards
This one is a no-brainer. Johnson leads all backs in the NFL with 1,396 yards on the ground. In fact, Peterson is not even in the top two in rushing yards; Steven Jackson of St. Louis has 36 more yards that Peterson, coming in at 1,120 to Adrian's 1,084.
Average Yards Per Game
I know what you're thinking: "Why didn't you just include this in the last stat?" Because Johnson has started one more game than Peterson, that's why. All things being equal, that should give Peterson an advantage in this category, right?
But all things are not equal. Peterson still played in all 11 games so far, and once again Johnson wins this one running away, so to speak. Averaging 126.9 yards per contest, he far outpaces Peterson's 98.5 yards per effort.
Yards Per Carry
Okay, you might be saying, "What about Adrian Peterson's ability to gain yards after contact? This has got to be one in his favor, doesn't it?"
Alas, you would be wrong. While Peterson is averaging a very respectable 4.7 yards per rush, Johnson bests him with a 6.4 yard average. For those not picking up on it, that means Johnson has done more work with fewer carries than Peterson; 13 fewer carries, to be exact.
Again, all things being equal, if Johnson had those other 13 carries (which he doesn't need, but just for fun lets look at the numbers), and was able to maintain the 6.4 yard average, then he would be sitting on nearly 1,500 yards. If that were so, would there be any doubt of his ability to break Dickerson's record?
Don't think so.
Total Yards from Scrimmage
Both Peterson and Johnson are versatile backs; that is, if need be they can catch a pass and run with it, albeit typically out of a screen, so they are effectively just starting their runs from the flat instead of the backfield. So how do our two superstars fare here?
Peterson has 27 receptions for 233 yards, with his longest one being 44 yards. That's an average of 8.6 yards per catch. Not too shabby for a running back.
But hang on a minute. Johnson has 33 receptions for 294 yards, including a 69-yard completion that went for a touchdown.
In the same game, he had a second rushing touchdown of more than 50 yards.
More on that next. But for now...
Oh, by the way, that's an average of 8.9 yards per catch.
Why total touchdowns? Because we just got finished talking about how both backs are versatile enough to contribute in the passing game, that's why. Got to count those touchdowns in the comparison.
Peterson leads the way in this category; his 12 rushing touchdowns best Johnson's 10, with nine rushing and one receiving.
This is a tricky comparison, though; Johnson is not a goal line back. LenDale White gets the call in goal-to-go situations because he is built to slam into the middle and push the pile. Not quite as well as he did before coming off the tequila, mind you, but he still has two touchdowns in goal line rushes that would bring Johnson's total to 12, equaling Peterson.
Another factor that must be looked at here is how and where the touchdowns occurred. Johnson has five touchdowns from scrimmage of better than 50 yards each.
Peterson? He has one.
Against the Browns.
I know, right?
Johnson also has a receiving touchdown, while Peterson has none. With Brett Favre slinging the rock, you'd think this would be the other way around. Alas, it isn't.
Edge—Johnson (you thought I was going to go by pure numbers there, didn't you?)
Another seemingly easy category. Johnson has racked up seven 100-yard games, including six straight over the last six weeks. These seven include a 197-yard effort against the Texans and a 128-yard effort against New England, both of which were losing efforts for the Titans.
What makes this special is that Johnson was able to rack up solid yards even when his team was losing, sometimes badly. In two of the six games Tennessee lost and Johnson didn't gain 100 yards, he managed to gain more than 80 yards in each.
Adrian Peterson, meanwhile, has quietly gone about his job on a winning team; all throughout the season he has been steady, with only three games of less than 80 yards, and three games of 100 yards or more rushing against such stalwart opponents as Cleveland and Detroit.
I'll give him kudos for his 147-yard performance against the Baltimore Ravens, but it loses a little luster when you realize that Minnesota played Detroit twice, and he only managed to gain 100 yards in one of those games.
Once again, I know, right?
Edge—seriously, you don't know?
Had to throw this one in here, because it is a critical component of being a good running back. If you can't hold onto the ball, you can't run with it, plain and simple.
In 213 carries Johnson has managed to hold onto the ball 212 times. Peterson, however, has put the rock on the ground six times, although was fortunate enough to recover once.
One fumble lost versus five fumbles lost. Which way do YOU think I'm going to go with it?
Edge—you got it: Johnson
Ah, here we go; the wonderful question of the intangible contribution to the team.
Vikings fans, I am sure, are quite ready with the argument that the Vikings are 10-1 and just about have their playoff bid locked up, while the lowly Titans aren't even above .500, and may not make the playoffs even if they do happen to run the table.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but here goes: If all things were equal this might be a valid argument. But all things are not equal.
Adrian Peterson is fortunate enough to have Brett Favre under center. Favre is playing like a man possessed right now, looking like a young kid fresh out of the draft, and Peterson is a direct beneficiary of that.
Johnson, on the other hand, plays for the "lowly" Titans, and dealt with six weeks of an under-performing Kerry Collins before the return of Vince Young. Even then he was outrunning defenders and showcasing his talent on a team that seemed bereft of much ability at all, a la Barry Sanders when everyone around him seemed to just be standing around watching.
Now, I am not necessarily discrediting Young, but as my colleague Dave Stanley points out, the situation is reversed in Nashville.
Johnson's performance has played a large part in the current success of the Titans and the resurgence of Vince Young, and in that vein, he is a much more critical component of his team that Peterson is.
So there you have it, folks. It should be a unanimous decision, and by my numbers it is. But I know better.
So, Adrian Peterson fans, bring your Kool-Aid and let me know where I erred (the Kool-Aid, in this case, is likely to be your favorite heart-warming adult beverage...it does get cold way up in Minnesota this time of year, after all).
This should be fun, eh?