6:08 PM PST, January 4, 2013
They sneak a peek. They steal a glance. They turn around and gawk, sometimes forgetting to carry out their own assignments as NFL quarterbacks.
When a quarterback puts the football in the hands of a great running back — especially a player as talented as the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson — that up-close, low-angle view of the darting, twisting, spinning, blasting ballcarrier is almost hypnotic.
Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer can fully appreciate what Minnesota's Christian Ponder witnessed from his unique vantage this season, when Peterson became the seventh player to run for 2,000 yards in a season.
"When you have a back that's just shredding defenses, it's really hard not to hand the thing off, turn around and watch," Dilfer said.
"It got me fired up to hand it off to Warrick Dunn in Tampa and see a defensive tackle come through the line free, and watch Warrick just make him eat grass. I'd come back to the huddle and go, 'Dude, that was sick! That was so awesome! Only I would know how good that was because I was watching from behind.'
"Every once in a while a coach would go, 'Well, why were you watching?' I'd go, 'I couldn't help it! You'd do the same thing!'"
Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst, said he often would fail to carry out his own fake — if he was supposed to make defenders think he was passing — because he was too mesmerized by the running back.
"I remember having conversations with [assistant coach] Mike Shula on the sideline, kind of a fun conversation where he'd go, 'Hey, you've got to carry out your fakes better. We're setting up this bootleg,'" Dilfer recalled. "And I'd go, 'I get it. You're absolutely right. I don't mean to be insubordinate, but if you saw what I just saw, you'd want to see it again.'"
Ponder has seen that over and over. Peterson finished with 2,097 yards — nine short of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season NFL record — and 409 of those came in two games against Green Bay. The Packers will face Peterson again Saturday night in the first round of the playoffs.
"There's times when I hand the ball off to Adrian and you can just tell it's going to be a big run," Ponder said. "When he's accelerating into the line and he starts to rise up. He's so much fun to watch, such a balance of power and agility. I've never seen anything like it."
Donovan McNabb knows it well. The longtime Philadelphia quarterback finished his career with Minnesota last season and got to experience Peterson's intensity first-hand.
While the rest of the NFL tried to figure out how to tackle Peterson, McNabb just wanted to get out of his way.
"He's a violent runner, where when you're handing the ball off, if you're not careful and paying attention, he'll take your arm with your ball," said McNabb, now an analyst for the NFL Network.
"My first week, getting ready for the first game of the season last year, we were going through a walk-through. He takes one step and it's just like, whoosh! Luckily, I grabbed my hand back, and I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? Hey, Adrian, let's turn the volume down from about 91/2 to about two or three. I've been in this league long enough — this is Year 13 for me — and there's no reason for you separating my shoulder in a walk-through.'"
But that's the intensity of Peterson, who, McNabb said, will run right over you if you're in his way, even if you're wearing the same-colored jersey.
The scenes from games are burned in McNabb's memory.
"We're playing Arizona," McNabb said, "and Adrian wears these shin guards that it seems like only 7-, 8-, 9-year-olds would wear because their parents don't feel like they've got enough pads on. He busts through a hole for about a 40-yard gain, and his shin guards pop off. He comes back, and I'm like, 'Hey, dude, did you have shin guards on or something?' And he's, 'Oh, yeah, where are they?'
"I say, 'Where are they? Are you kidding me? I mean, do you have 100 pounds on?'"
Then, came the trampling of Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, at the time a rising rookie star.
"He got the ball and he ran through Patrick Peterson," McNabb said. "I felt bad for Patrick Peterson on that. You know when you turn the treadmill all the way up to 15, as fast as it goes? That's as fast as Adrian Peterson was running. And Patrick, he was standing there like the bull came out and he had the little red towel. That was a welcome-to-the-NFL moment for him. Some horses you just don't get in front of."
Or, in the case of John Riggins, some diesels. Thirty years ago with the Washington Redskins, Joe Theismann was handing off to Riggins and marveled at the sight of the future Hall of Fame bruiser.
"We have the best seat in the house," Theismann said of quarterbacks. "John hit [cornerback] Luther Bradley of the Detroit Lions on a goal-line play. I saw the pile, and all I saw was Luther's helmet pop up in the air like a pop-a-shot. I watched the helmet roll in slow motion along the ground and thought, 'My god, he's killed him. He's knocked his head off.'
"That's the power of some of these guys."
NFL quarterbacks say that unless you've been in that chaos, heard and felt those collisions, seen those holes open and close as fast as a camera shutter, it's impossible to fully appreciate how difficult the job of a ballcarrier can be.
"I wish people had the view that I had when I handed the ball off, what it looked like and what it sounded like," said former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, now with CBS. "And how many people would have a much greater respect for just how physical and nasty it really is when you're running with the football.
"When you're taking it out of the I-formation, and you have all 11 guys on a defense coming at you, and they're all hitting you at different angles in different places, on the back of your thighs, around the shoulders, in the head, around the ankles, twisting your ankles at the bottom of piles, you understand that they're the most underappreciated and underpaid players in the NFL."
Being able to throw the ball is important, that's undeniable. But nothing on the field says physical domination as much as an ability to run the ball.
"What's better in life than being a bully on the field?" said CBS's Phil Simms, former New York Giants quarterback. "The running back and the offensive line get in that state of mind where they're bullies and they're beating the other guy up. Hell, I was a quarterback and I got involved in it. I'd be talking crap in the huddle. I wanted to walk up to defensive linemen and go, 'Man, we are kicking your butt!'
"Now, of course, I had nothing to do with it except maybe calling the play correctly and giving words of encouragement. But it really did empower everybody. Running did it."
That's something any quarterback could understand.
"If you could get into our eyes, you could look at very similar shots of very different backs — Adrian Peterson, John Riggins, [Washington's] Alfred Morris, [Seattle's] Marshawn Lynch — and you'd see some of the same things," Theismann said. "You'd see that same type of power, speed, determination, coming from the great running backs. It doesn't change.
"And as a quarterback, all you're doing is sitting there going, 'Thank you, Lord, for putting him on my team!'"
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