The number comes to Adrian Peterson in his sleep, whispering to him with promises of prestige that few other achievements in the NFL can provide.
It is the most eye-catching figure in football -- 2,000.
In a game that is not known for landmark statistics as much as it is for its violence and speed, 2,000 might be the one number that everyone instantly identifies with greatness.
Try and remember the record for yards rushing in a career. How about touchdown passes? Receptions?
They don’t sing like 2,000. Only five players in NFL history have crested that sublimely perfect benchmark in one season, and it doesn’t take a historian to list them.
Simpson. Dickerson. Sanders. Davis. Lewis.
Even more telling are the marquee names who have fallen short in that pursuit -- Brown, Sayers, Campbell, Payton, Dorsett, Allen, Smith, Tomlinson.
And, at least for now, Peterson.
“It is something I think about and dream about,” Peterson said. “I don’t focus on it because you’ll never accomplish it that way, but that’s my bar. It will always be 2,000 or more. I hope to accomplish that some day.”
For the league’s best running back, some day could be right around the corner. Peterson led the league last season with 1,760 yards rushing and already holds the NFL single-game record, the 296 yards he gained against San Diego as a rookie two years ago.
At 24 years old, he is entering his prime and has more talent around him than he has ever had in the NFL.
The 1,000-yard plateau used to be the indicator of a good season for a running back in the NFL. But since the league expanded the regular season to 16 games in 1978, that number has become pedestrian.
A running back need only average 62.5 yards rushing over 16 games to get 1,000. It will take Peterson, or any other back, a robust 125 yards a game to hit the big number.
So is 2,000 possible?
“With Adrian,” Vikings running backs coach Eric Bieniemy says, “anything is possible.”
Yet one can argue that there has never been more standing in his way. Jamal Lewis was the last to rush for 2,000 yards in a season when he did it with Baltimore in 2003. So if anyone knows how difficult it is to do, and everything that needs to go right for it to happen, it’s the bowling ball who now plays for the Cleveland Browns.
Lewis’s magical season really got going in Week 2 when he gained 295 yards against the Browns, a record Peterson would break three years later. That put Lewis on track to joining O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis in the most exclusive of clubs.
But as Lewis points out, those were different times.
“I wasn’t splitting two backs. Those other guys weren’t splitting two backs,” he said. “It was their show. It wasn’t, ‘OK, you’re coming out on third down. The horse coming out on third down.’
“And there wasn’t so much emphasis on throwing the ball downfield and make these big, explosive plays all the time. That wasn’t there and now that’s what this league is all about.”
In this day and age of multiple running backs, Peterson is one of the few true workhorses left. He has carried the ball 621 times in his first two seasons in coach Brad Childress’s run-first offense and only comes out on third down and obvious passing situations when Chester Taylor takes over.
“When he broke my record, I said, he can go get (2,000),” Lewis said. “He can get it because they don’t have a good quarterback situation. He can go get it because they’re not lighting it up down field. They’re calling his number, and the offensive line’s and you got to answer. But if you’re going to have a balanced attack, it won’t work.”
With the addition of receiver Percy Harvin, the Vikings should be more balanced this season. But the instability at quarterback remains, and Peterson will be running behind an offensive line with a new center in John Sullivan and a rookie right tackle in Phil Loadholt.
For Peterson to have a shot, the new-look line will have to jell during the preseason and his receivers will have to be dedicated to sustaining blocks down the field.
“It was a lot of work and a lot of work that went into it and it wasn’t just me,” Lewis said of his big year. “But it was my offensive line coach with the offensive line and guys blocking down field. We had some good receivers who did a nice job of getting guys downfield and that’s where the big runs come from.”
Peterson won’t be alone in his pursuit of 2,000. His offensive line, led by All-Pro Steve Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie on the left side, wants it just as bad.
“That’s a great thing to have on your resume, a guy that’s rushed for 2,000 yards,” right guard Anthony Herrera said. “Hard thing to do in the league. Of course, it’d be a great thing.”
His receivers and fullback feel the same way.
“We’re all in it together,” fullback Naufahu Tahi said. “We’re in there to help him out when he does get the ball. It takes all the other guys to do their jobs and make things right for him to be successful.”
The final key to success, of course, will be Peterson staying healthy. He missed two games during his rookie season with a knee injury and never met a sideline that he didn’t try to avoid in favor of delivering a hit to a defender.
In the end, Lewis said the biggest factor was a desire to be great, to work at it with teammates and make it happen.
With Peterson, that won’t be an issue.
“Well, he may be as good a running back as there is in the league, but he wants to be great in all facets,” Childress said. “You’ve got to give it to him from the standpoint of working on your weaknesses. You say he can’t get better at running the football. He’s the leading rusher.
“He can get better and he knows he can. He’s resolute about doing that.”
Associated press reporters Tom Withers in Berea, Ohio, and Dave Campbell in Mankato, Minn. contributed to this story.
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The five running backs who have rushed for more than 2,000 yards in a single NFL season:
*--* YEAR PLAYER TEAM G ATT YDS AVG TD 1973 O.J. Simpson Buffalo 14 332 2,003 6.0 12 1984 Eric Dickerson L.A. Rams 16 379 2,105 5.6 14 1997 Barry Sanders Detroit 16 335 2,053 6.1 11 1998 Terrell Davis Denver 16 392 2,008 5.1 22 2003 Jamal Lewis Baltimore 16 387 2,066 5.3 14 *--*
Source: Associated Press