EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — So Adrian Peterson, what do you do for an encore, especially after a season that's still hard to believe?
If expectations are off the charts, you might have only yourself to blame.
Despite reconstructive surgery on his left knee, Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards last season, won the NFL's Most Valuable Player award and led the imbalanced Minnesota Vikings to a playoff-qualifying 10-6 record.
"I'm always looking to improve and help this offense be productive and accomplish the ultimate goal, winning a championship, and that starts with winning our division," Peterson said. "Personally, I want to go out there and just put my best foot forward with that No. 1 goal in hand. Everything else will trickle down. The questions that I know I'm going to be asked: Can I get 2,500? Because I've been asked that question so many times. How's the knee feeling? I'll be like, 'Well, 'Did you see last year?'"
Yes, it was something. Only Eric Dickerson, with 2,105 yards in 1984, accumulated more yards rushing in one year. Peterson, with a whopping 1,322 yards over the last eight games, was more productive in the second half than all but five other running backs for the whole season.
"I never felt like I was at 100 percent last year, as far as the strength in my leg, and this year I'll just be able to improve and add on to that," Peterson said.
From Dickerson on down, none of the other six players to top 2,000 yards rushing came close the following year. Barry Sanders, with 1,491 yards in 1998, had the best follow-up season. Even 1,800 yards is daunting, though it's been done 20 times, with Dickerson (three), and Sanders and O.J Simpson (two each) the only players with multiples.
At 28, Peterson is also on the verge of passing his prime. Even if he keeps up the pace and breaks Emmitt Smith's career rushing record one day (18,355 yards), Peterson will be a clear outlier in a demanding position that chews up some of the best and spits them out before anyone saw the end coming.
Shaun Alexander, the MVP in 2005 with 1,880 yards rushing, was out of the league three years later at 31. LaDainian Tomlinson, the MVP in 2006 with 1,815 yards rushing, was out of the league five years later at 32. Neither played in a Pro Bowl past the age of 28.
Asked what more Peterson could do, center John Sullivan said, with a touch of sarcasm: "Run for more yards, win another MVP, you know, lead us further in the playoffs. That's just what it comes down to and what we're all striving for."
If there isn't enough evidence to suggest a statistical regression, Peterson must also beware of the NFL's new penalty for ball carriers lowering their heads to make intentional contact with the crown of the helmet.
One of Peterson's many punishing runs in 2012, against Chicago, was a prominent part of the league's instructional video of the rule change shown to players during training camp. At first, he was concerned. After learning that flags would be thrown only when all three criteria are met, Peterson said he was "cool with it." That is: When a ball carrier is outside the tackle box, lines up a would-be tackler to run straight at him and lowers his head upon collision, that's when the 15-yard spot foul is in effect.
The NFL has said only obvious violations will be called.
"It may be one of the few safety rules where, if you have a little doubt, you're not going to throw it," said Tony Veteri, a head linesman with 22 years' experience.
Even one penalty though, could be the difference in missing a record or round-number mark.
Asked if he believed the new rule would affect his style, Peterson shrugged.
"But I'm sure sometimes it's natural instincts to have my head down," he said. "Hopefully, they miss it."Comment on this story
Another challenge for Peterson will be playing the first three games without Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton, who was in front of him in two-back sets on more than half of his carries last year. Hybrid tight end Rhett Ellison and undrafted rookie Zach Line will fill in there during Felton's suspension for prior drunken driving arrests.
"We should be OK," Peterson said.
Given his history, that's probably all the Vikings need to hear.
"To be honest with you, I've thought in the past that I was the MVP, and I just didn't win," Peterson said. "Winning this year, it feels good, but I still approach it with the same mindset: Come in and work my butt off. I play to be the best, apply it to the game and to life with that mindset, and everything else will work out."