Christian Ponder picked a good time to leave the country.
The injured Vikings quarterback was replaced Friday by Matt Cassel, and Ponder was quoted by the Pioneer Press on Twitter saying, "It stinks. The biggest risk was health." Before preparing to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in London, his team lost to Cleveland, which triggered not only a "suck it up" comment from his quarterbacks coach but also a more stinging barb from Adrian Peterson's daughter, who chided her dad for dropping a game to the lowly Browns. In light of Ponder's rib injury, the calls for Cassel in the Twin Cities proved to be prescient, and there were even calls for another second-stringer, Josh Freeman, who has been benched by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in favor of a rookie who was a third-round draftee.
Part of the aggravation is because of the man behind Ponder on the field, rather than the depth chart. That would be the man they call "AD." Peterson is the best player on the Vikings and arguably the best player in the NFL. And he is not likely to get anywhere near the Super Bowl unless the Vikings (0-3) find a quarterback who keeps defenses from stuffing eight in the box. That adds pressure on the entire franchise, especially on the quarterback.
Peterson is 28, and he's already escaped one career-threatening injury. There's a growing chance he'll never appear on the sport's grandest stage. Sadly, some of the best running backs in recent history have faced the same fate.
LaDainian Tomlinson never appeared in a Super Bowl, despite being one of the sport's greatest all-time scorers. His San Diego Chargers went to the playoffs in five of his seasons, but lost in their first game in three of them. Eric Dickerson's Rams won only two playoff games, and lost the two ensuing games by a cumulative score of 75-7. Barry Sanders, who Peterson has called the greatest ever, rushed the Detroit Lions into the playoffs in five seasons – the glory years by today's standards – and had only one victory to show for it.
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You only need to look at Emmitt Smith's Cowboys to see what's possible with the right pieces around a Hall of Fame running back, yet some of the greatest rushers never had those pieces. Dickerson's quarterback in 1984, when he set the rushing record, was Jeff Kemp. The following year, when the Rams won a playoff game, it was Dieter Brock. Sanders had a combination of Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer, Scott Mitchell and Charlie Batch. Tomlinson had a young Drew Brees, and then watched him win a Super Bowl in New Orleans.
Improbably, Peterson is in the running to have the worst playoff luck of them all. He has appeared in only four playoff games and won one, with Brett Favre handing off to him in 2009. So the urgency is there not only for Vikings fans, who want to see a winner, but for all football fans, who want to see Peterson in a spot where defenses are perpetually compromised. Some of Sanders' best runs came when everyone in the building knew he was getting the ball, and still he found slivers that became holes that became long gallops. Likewise with Peterson, who got the ball in the first play from scrimmage this season, in what was likely the most obvious play call in football history, and he still took it the distance.
Lions fans resented Sanders for retiring after 10 years, yet over time the anger turned to sadness and loss. There is the longing not only to see Sanders in his prime, but also to see what he might have been with more help. The Lions are a different team with Reggie Bush, as they were with Jahvid Best, and it's almost too difficult to wonder what Sanders would have been like with Matthew Stafford as his quarterback and Calvin Johnson set out wide.
Which brings us back to Ponder, Cassel and Peterson. There is deep appreciation for Peterson, as there was for Sanders, yet there is already the wonder at what could be. Three of the eight greatest players who never made a Super Bowl (according to NFL.com) are running backs, and it's easy to fear Peterson could be the fourth.
It's also easy to fear Peterson's career, whenever it's over, will elicit a tinge of regret to go with all that awe.
Peterson is running into history, but he's also running into repeating history. At least he's not alone.
Ponder, unfortunately, isn't either.