Updated: November 13th, 2012 8:49pm
Zulgad: Evidence tangible Adrian Peterson really is better than before

Zulgad: Evidence tangible Adrian Peterson really is better than before

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Leslie Frazier tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee returning a punt for the Chicago Bears in the 1985 Super Bowl and never played in another NFL game.

Twenty-six years later, the Minnesota Vikings coach witnessed his star running back, Adrian Peterson, tear the same ligament along with the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in Washington.

Frazier knew the advances in surgical procedures and rehab meant that Peterson's career was far from over, but he also wanted to be cautious when Peterson immediately began talking about redefining the timetable for an athlete's return from reconstructive knee surgery.

This was still going to be a long and grueling process and Frazier knew that, although Peterson looked superhuman at times on the field, the reality was he was still just a man. At least, that's what Frazier thought last winter.

"I wanted to temper the emotion," Frazier said when asked about Peterson's initial optimism. "I know how focused he can be and how great he has been at being able to name it and claim it. But I also know there are a lot of guys, including myself, that had not come back from that injury and some who had come back weren't quite as good as they were before.

"So, I wanted him to approach it the right way, just like he wanted to approach it, but also let him know there was a lot of hard work ahead. Not that he couldn't achieve his goals, but there was a lot of hard work ahead. He understood that and he hasn't blinked. Look at where he is now."

Peterson is atop the NFL in rushing yards and on a four-game stretch in which he has rushed for 153, 123, 182 and 171 yards. His 1,128 rushing yards are 123 more than Seattle's Marshawn Lynch.

What Peterson is doing would be eye-opening if he had entered the season at 100%. The fact he's doing with a surgically repaired knee is nothing short of remarkable.

The talk among many entering the season was how the Vikings should approach bringing Peterson along. It was a given he would have no interest in taking it slow, but common sense dictated that trying to get Peterson back on the field as soon as possible could be a mistake for the long term.

The only catch is that common sense clearly does not apply when it comes to Peterson's physical abilities. Seeing defenses regularly stack the box in an effort to stop the run because the Vikings' passing game poses little threat, Peterson went over the 1,000-yard rushing mark in Sunday's victory over Detroit for the fifth time in six NFL seasons.

His best output came in 2008, when he became the first Vikings running back to lead the league in rushing with 1,760 yards. He is on pace to finish this year with 1,805 yards on the ground. Peterson also has 29 catches for 155 yards, putting him on pace to have a career-best 46 receptions.

Is the workload too much? Tight end Kyle Rudolph said that is never the case when it comes to Peterson -- a guy who can put the offense on his broad shoulders.

"I think Adrian can carry us as far as Adrian wants," Rudolph said. "He's one of those guys who will always put the load on his shoulders and he wants to be that guy. If you ask Adrian, he wants to carry it every time. So, you have to have a guy like that leading your team."

Frazier had an almost frightening thought -- at least if you're a defender facing Peterson -- as he spoke on Monday.

Simply put, Frazier wondered whether the Adrian Peterson he is coaching now might be better than the guy who started the Vikings' game last Dec. 24 in Washington with two healthy knees.

"There's some things he's doing that makes you scratch your head and say, 'Maybe he will be better than he was before the injury,'" Frazier said. "I'm looking at some things that he's doing and he has improved. His hands are better. Some of his cuts, his burst, he's staying more true to his reads. These are some things that he hadn't done before his injury.

"He was always looking to hit the home run, and sometimes, that would create negative plays. Now, he's truer to his reads and he's helping our offensive line be better at what they do. So, he's a joy to watch. I think all of us should cherish having the chance to watch him live."

Those who saw Peterson's performance Sunday saw him dart 61 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown, giving him three consecutive games with a run of 60-plus yards.

Although Denver quarterback Peyton Manning has set himself up as the Comeback Player of the Year, Peterson also is eligible for the Associated Press award and has to warrant strong consideration. Manning, who is coming off multiple neck surgeries that forced him to miss last season, has led the Broncos to a 6-3 record and the lead in the AFC West.

The 36-year-old Manning has topped 300 yards passing six times in the past seven games, has an NFL-best passer rating of 108 and is fifth with 2,705 passing yards. He is doing this all in his first season with Denver.

Some might say that Peterson should not quality as a comeback candidate because he missed only the regular-season finale last season after injuring his knee. But that's what makes his return even more remarkable and might make his candidacy stronger.

The normal recovery period for the injury Peterson suffered is six to eight months. That means simply getting back on the field with no real expectations. Peterson underwent the surgery shortly after tearing up his knee on Dec. 30 and began practicing seven-plus months later, on Aug. 12.

He had missed the opening of training camp when the Vikings put him on the physically unable to perform list -- a decision Peterson did not like -- and did not play in a preseason game. In his first game back, Peterson surprised nearly everyone but himself by gaining 84 yards on 17 carries and scoring two touchdowns in a victory over Jacksonville in the regular-season opener.

That was a nice story, but it in no way provided of preview of what we've seen of late as Peterson continues to progress.

A season after finishing 3-13, the Vikings enter their bye week in the playoff hunt in the NFC with a 6-4 record. That means that, like in Manning's case, talking about the Comeback Player of the Year award might not be enough when the conversation turns to Peterson.

Is Peterson's performance MVP-worthy?

"We do have a lot of football to be played," Frazier said, "but if you ask me today -- and I haven't seen all the guys around the league -- but it's hard for me to imagine a guy doing more for his football team than what Adrian has done for our team.

"The fact that he has been so dominant over the course of the season -- he's pulling away with his domination as a runner. His impact has been huge for us. It's hard to imagine another guy having a greater impact on their team, considering where we are and what we have to do every single week to win."

Rudolph, who has helped block for Peterson, has been among the many inspired by what they've seen from their teammate. Rudolph also wouldn't have a hard time filling out an MVP ballot, although he's naturally a bit biased.

"He'd be my candidate," Rudolph said. "Watching him do what he does, he's only getting stronger as the year goes on, and us being involved in the run game, it's fun to block for a guy like that."

Peterson certainly appears to be having fun.

It has become almost a weekly obligation that someone ask Peterson whether he feels he is 100 percent yet. It's tough to tell if Peterson is now just having fun with the question or whether he's using it as a tool to make others wonder just how much better he can get.

"I still can get stronger," Peterson said on Sunday, during status update No. 105.

"I'm still not there, man. I'm pressing to get there, so this bye week is going to be great for me, just all of the nicks I'll be able to recover (from) and I'm definitely going to be working during the bye week because it's not off for me. I'm going to come back stronger and better after the bye."

Simple hyperbole? In Peterson's case, maybe not.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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