The average career length for an NFL running back is about two-and-a-half year, but Sunday’s game between the Redskins and Buffalo Bills will feature two players who are well past beating those odds.
Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore have thrived at a position that many consider to have limited “prime years.” They both rank in the top 10 all-time in rushing yards -- Gore has 15,170 while Peterson has 13,701 -- and both have had historically long and successful careers.
Sunday will only be the fourth time the two take the same field.
“There’s going to be a game within a game, let’s face it,” interim head coach Bill Callahan said Wednesday. “[Those are] two prideful, professional athletes that want to do really well, and I know they’re going to have a lot of respect for one another.”
Gore was a standout in college as a member of the University of Miami Hurricanes, rushing for 1,975 yards and 17 touchdowns despite tearing his ACL in his second and third years with the team.
He was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft. After rushing for 608 yards in his rookie season, he erupted for 1,695 and eight touchdowns in 2006. Gore went on to rush for at least 1,000 yards in eight of the next 12 seasons.
Gore hasn’t been a player to break off many long runs, although he does have the potential to break loose on occasion; the longest run of his career was an 80-yard rumble to the end zone in 2009 against the Seattle Seahawks. But he has always been exceptional running between the tackles on power and counter plays.
That ability is a trait Callahan has always admired.
“He knows where the soft spots [in defenses] are at,” Callahan said. “He doesn’t need much of a crease because he has such a great feel for the scheme.”
Gore has rushed for 422 yards this season with an average of 4.4 per carry. He also has a success rate of 53%, according to Football Outsiders, which ranks 11th in his position. Peterson is right behind Gore with 383 yards on 3.9 per carry.
For Peterson, who has been following Gore’s career since college, the 36-year-old player has been a motivation for him.
“For me growing up, he was someone that … runs the ball really well, [he’s] strong, aggressive,” Peterson said. “Even now, I enjoy watching him and seeing that he’s being successful. It’s always a motivation to know I have another comrade two years older than me that’s still getting it done.”
Gore is fourth in all-time rushing yards while Peterson is sixth. Gore has the chance to move past Barry Sanders for third with a 100-yard game against the Redskins.
This is the first time Gore and Peterson have been on the same field since 2012 when they were still with the 49ers and Vikings, respectively. Gore outrushed Peterson in that first matchup, which came during Peterson’s rookie year in 2007, with 16 carries for 68 yards compared to Peterson’s 14 for three. Since then, however, Peterson has outgained Gore, 171 to 67.
Gore and Peterson have 28 years of experience between them while many running backs would consider themselves lucky to be in the NFL for a fraction of that time. For both players, Peterson said it's about having the right mentality.
“That mental toughness is the reason why we’re able to play for an extended period of time,” Peterson said of Gore and himself.
It’s rare to have two backs who are top-10 in rushing yards to be in the same game, and that is something Peterson has been aware of in the days leading up to Sunday. Over the course of their careers, the two have combined for 28,871 yards and 186 touchdowns.
When Redskins quarterback Alex Smith brought up the significance of Sunday’s game to Peterson earlier this week, it got the 34-year-old back thinking about how uncommon their meeting will be.
“That’s pretty amazing,” Peterson said. “I don’t know when you’ll ever be able to say that you have two backs still playing in what people consider to be an older age that are still chasing history. Like when would that happen again? So that alone is pretty special.”