Vikings backup Adrian Peterson is a huge hit

The Vikings' Adrian Peterson , a rookie out of Oklahoma, leads the NFL in rushing with 670 yards in six games.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Six games into Adrian Peterson's NFL career, the comparisons and expectations are ridiculously lofty. And largely deserved.

Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips likened Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings' rookie running back and the NFL's leading rusher, to a cross between Gale Sayers and Eric Dickerson, though that was before the Cowboys beat the Vikings, 24-14, on Sunday.

Vikings great Chuck Foreman, who had held the franchise's single-game rushing record since 1976 until Peterson broke it two weeks ago, said Peterson could be one of the greatest backs ever.

And veteran Vikings safety Darren Sharper, when asked how good Peterson could be, paused to choose the best words. "He can be the MVP of this league if he wants to be," Sharper said. "He's got that ability."

So why, then, did Peterson carry the ball only 12 times against Dallas for a season-low 63 yards? And why does Vikings head coach Brad Childress, the former Eagles offensive coordinator, continue to alternate Peterson and Chester Taylor?

Peterson is certainly the more explosive back. He has six of the Vikings' nine offensive touchdowns and six runs of 20-plus yards - more than any NFL back except Pittsburgh's Willie Parker (eight).

For weeks now, Vikings fans, many of whom bought Peterson's No. 28 jersey before the first-round draft pick from Oklahoma ever reported to training camp, have been bombarding talk shows and Internet message boards, demanding Childress give Peterson the ball more.

But Childress fears burning Peterson out. That's what happened last year with Taylor, who tired in December after gaining more than 1,000 yards through 12 games in his first season as a starter. He finished with 1,216 yards on 303 carries.

"I just think those guys, you have to keep them fresh," Childress said Monday. "There are times when he comes to the sideline where he is huffing and puffing and he's ready to go back, and you can see that Chester Taylor can give you some things as well.

"We're going to give him plenty of looks and plenty of plays to carry the football, as we are with Chester."

So, on the Vikings' depth chart, Peterson is still listed as Taylor's backup even though he has outgained him by almost 500 yards. Peterson chooses not to make an issue of it. "As a competitor, you want to be out there all the time," Peterson told reporters after the Dallas game. "At this level, you just have to be ready when they call your number."

The controversy has its roots in an athletic rarity: performance that actually matches hype.

Going into Sunday's game with the Eagles at the Metrodome, Peterson leads the NFL in rushing (670 yards) and yards per carry (6.2). He drew national attention for his electrifying Oct. 14 performance at Soldier Field, tearing through a respected Bears defense for 224 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries to smash Foreman's team record by 24 yards. Peterson's combined 361 net yards rushing, receiving and returning was the third-best total in NFL history.

With 4.38 speed and the ability to change direction quickly, Peterson counters defenses that stack eight men in the box anticipating the run. In his first five games, he ran for more yards (607) than any rookie in NFL history except Dickerson (645 in 1983).

Already, Peterson has the three longest runs ever by a Vikings rookie, of 73, 67 (both for touchdowns against the Bears) and 55 yards. His four 100-yard games are one more than Foreman had as a rookie.

"It's impressive. He definitely has talent," said Matt Birk, the Vikings' five-time Pro Bowl center.

On Sunday, playing in his home state of Texas for the first time as a pro, Peterson ran 20 yards for a first-quarter touchdown. But he carried just eight more times after that as the Cowboys dominated, controlling the ball for more than 36 minutes.

Peterson dropped a pass late in the third quarter. After fumbling with just under 12 minutes to play, when Jason Hatcher slapped the ball free from behind, Peterson did not carry the ball the rest of the game. "There were opportunities that I left out there," Peterson said.

Though considered the best back in the draft, Peterson fell to the Vikings at No. 7 because of questions about his health and durability. Last season, he missed seven games with a broken left collarbone, which he re-fractured in the Sooners' Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State.

Peterson said he did not think back to the six teams that passed on him. (For the record: Oakland, Detroit, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Washington.)

"But they probably do," he said, smiling.

On the first day he practiced with the Vikings, Peterson announced he wanted to win the MVP and rookie-of- the-year awards. Birk said Peterson's work ethic and fearlessness quickly impressed the Vikings' veteran offensive linemen.

"He doesn't shy away from contact, that's for sure," Birk said. "Guys like to block for guys who fight for every single yard. You can respect guys like that. He sure runs hard, and he's a tough guy."

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