While Julian Peterson is well within his rights to designate the Viking as family, his AFC counterparts stressed observers to hold off on labeling Adrian Peterson the league's best running back after he was named most outstanding player following the NFC's 42-30 victory over the AFC in the Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium.
"You can't just give the guy the title and say he's the greatest running back off of his first year in the league," said San Diego Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal, who knows a thing or two about marquee rushers. "Adrian Peterson has a chance to be a great running back in this league but a lot of people want to crown him the best after one year. He's a good back, no doubt.
"If you're going to write a book about Adrian Peterson, he's just in the beginning. He's just on the first paragraph."
The first line of Peterson's book was written on opening day when the No. 7 overall pick from Oklahoma combined for 163 yards and a touchdown on 20 touches against the Atlanta Falcons. There was one play in particular that forced the ink onto the scroll to detail his exploits.
"When he caught that screen pass, took off and no one could catch him, right then I said, 'if we give this kid the ball enough during games, he'll do some special things,' " Vikings safety Darren Sharper said of Peterson's 60-yard touchdown, his first career score and only reception of the game.
More ink filled the pages when Peterson ran for 224 yards and three touchdowns against a Chicago Bears defense that reached the Super Bowl a season earlier on the strength of a tough front 7 that typically stood tall against the run.
Then, three weeks later, the designation of the best began to roll off observers tongues as fast as Peterson made tacklers whiff. Against the San Diego Chargers, with 2006 MVP LaDainian Tomlinson lining up for the other offense, Peterson set an NFL record with 296 rushing yards with three more touchdowns. Just like that, LT – who was being lauded by some onlookers as the best back of all time ahead of Walter Payton and Jim Brown just a season before when he was breaking numerous season and career marks – was no longer the flavor of the day.
"It's kind of premature to put him up there with the likes of L.T. (Tomlinson) and Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith," said Neal, a four-time Pro Bowler who has blocked for Tomlinson, Warrick Dunn, Eddie George and Corey Dillon. "The (latter two) books are finished. We got to see the beginning, the body and the conclusion. Right now, (Peterson) is at the beginning."
Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman was impressed with Peterson – in November and again on Sunday – but he too is hesitant to toss around the lofty designation.
"When I came into the league, a lot of linebackers who were around for a long time said, 'it's easy to go across the water one time. Or it's easy to get double-digit sacks one time, but if you can consistently do it, that puts you in an elite group,' " said Merriman, who's led San Diego in sacks in each of his three seasons. "If he comes out and keeps doing what he's doing, he'll be one of the best who ever did it."
Peterson got a chance to display for so many Sunday why the book he's writing has a chance to be a "barn burner," as Neal calls it.
Peterson put the NFC ahead for the first time in the third quarter when he pulled a Houdini/tight rope act for a 17-yard touchdown run.
"I barely got touched," said Peterson, who has likely used that quote a time or two this season. "I was able to stop on the sideline and then just walk it up."
"Initially, I was thinking I had help to my outside but I didn't," said the Houston Texans linebacker, who claimed the AFC only had 10 players on the field.
Even after Peterson got past Ryans, there was still a defender waiting on the sideline to take Peterson down. Again, no play was made as Peterson left the vicinity of New England Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel and made his way down the sideline and into the end zone.
"I really got skinny on the sideline and was able to stay in bounds," said Peterson, the offensive rookie of the year this season.
"The fact that the receiver was holding on Asante Samuel didn't seem to help, but I guess you can't expect that type of call at the Pro Bowl," Manning said.
Still, the contest was up for grabs until "All Day" scored his second touchdown with a 6-yard run with 2:43 left in the game.
Peterson finished with 129 rushing yards and 16 carries – more than double the total of his NFC teammates Marion Barber (6) and Brian Westbrook (1), and one more than all of the other backs had when you include the eight by four AFC rushers.
"It seemed like the NFC really featured him. I kind of feel for Barber and Westbrook" Manning said. "They really didn't get much action tonight. Maybe they signed off on that."
With the exhibition game over, the focus turns to the future … and where Peterson might one day legitimately belong among the pantheon of great NFL running backs. When fellow Pro Bowlers spoke of Peterson Sunday, skills such as great vision, tremendous cutback ability and explosiveness were mentioned. But they also emphasized that there's a discrepancy between being a good runner and a great running back. A great runner must exhibit durability, contribute as a pass blocker and be effective as a receiver, they said. Even more, any great player must illustrate sports most used C-word – consistency.
In order to consistently produce good seasons, Peterson knows he has to keep working hard.
"I continue to tell myself that whatever it took for you to get wherever you're at right now, just continue to do it," said Peterson, who finished with 1,341 yards but missed two games with a knee injury. "I definitely know what it takes."