LaDainian Tomlinson's Mileage

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During the 2008 season, LaDainian Tomlinson scared the crap out of me.  I know the Chargers team is stacked at just about every position, but the running back position is crucial to the success of any team.  With the Chargers and LT, who is already a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, there was a sense of denial that I think put the team in deep holes during several games.  Norv Turner kept calling for 21 to do something: juke a linebacker, make a huge cut that opens up a hole, outrace everyone down the field, etc. 

However, all the Chargers got from LT last year was an undersized straight-line runner that couldn't take a hit.  Was it because of his toe injury that he couldn't cut and didn't have a second gear to run away from the secondary?  Maybe.  Was it because of his groin injury that he wasn't able to contribute anything in the playoffs?  Perhaps.  The answer to that question doesn't matter.  At this point a healthy Tomlinson may be just as good as we remember him being, but because of the beating he's taken throughout his career I think he's going to continue battling more injuries unless we take away some of his carries.

Click through to find out if LT is the most overworked running back in the NFL today and maybe in recent history.  Also, what does history tell us about RBs like LT?  Will he get better or will he get worse?

Before I get into it, I'm going to break down the simplest of stats.  Rushing attempts.  Did you ever play "Kill the man with the ball" is school?  Different regions of the country have different names for it, but basically you catch a ball and run away from a group that's trying to tackle you.  Then, when you're worried about someone taking your head off, you throw it to someone else and start chasing them.  Running backs don't have the luxury of throwing the ball to someone else.  The second the ball is put into their hands there can only be three outcomes: touchdown, run out of bounds, get hit.  That third outcome is the most likely and the most prevalent.  So the more rushing attempts a running back has, the more their body takes a beating.  The more you get hit and the older you get, the less chance you have of taking those hits and being able to play the next game.

Still, at the age of 29 and in his 8th year as the starting Chargers running back, LaDainian Tomlinson finished the season ranked 6th in the NFL in number of rushing attempts.  It was the lowest number of rushing attempts he's ever had in his career, but it was still far too many.  Let's compare the miles on his body with the rest of the top 10.

2008:

Att Yds Avg Yds/G
Michael Turner 376 1,699 4.5 106.2
Adrian Peterson 363 1,760 4.8 110.0
Clinton Portis 342 1,487 4.3 92.9
Matt Forte 316 1,238 3.9 77.4
Ryan Grant 312 1,203 3.9 75.2
LaDainian Tomlinson 292 1,110 3.8 69.4
Thomas Jones 290 1,312 4.5 82.0
Jamal Lewis 279 1,002 3.6 62.6
DeAngelo Williams 273 1,515 5.5 94.7
Steve Slaton 268 1,282 4.8 80.1

 

Career:

Att Yds Avg Yds/G
Michael Turner 604 2,956 4.9 39.4
Adrian Peterson 601 3,101 5.2 103.4
Clinton Portis 2,052 9,202 4.5 92.0
Matt Forte 316 1,238 3.9 77.4
Ryan Grant 500 2,159 4.3 69.6
LaDainian Tomlinson 2,657 11,760 4.4 92.6
Thomas Jones 1,949 7,815 4.0 59.2
Jamal Lewis 2,399 10,107 4.2 82.8
DeAngelo Williams 538 2,733 5.1 60.7
Steve Slaton 268 1,282 4.8 80.1

 

Pretty shocking, huh?  Tomlinson has more career rushing attempts than anyone else in the top 10.  The best comparison on this list is Clinton Portis, but Tomlinson is ahead of him by over 600 rushing attempts (about two full seasons).  Would you want Clinton Portis as the focal point of your offense in two seasons?  He's already starting to battle nagging injuries constantly and will probably start missing games because of those injuries soon. 

Another part of this equation is size.  Typically, larger running backs can take more of a pounding over their careers than smaller running backs.  Although throughout his career he's performed admirably as a "goal line back", LT is not a large running back.  Tomlinson is listed as being 5'10" and 221 lbs.  So let's find some of the best comparisons to LT in terms of rushing attempts and size.

Att Yds Avg Yds/G
Warrick Dunn (5'9",180) 2,669 10,967 4.1 60.6
Edgerrin James (6', 214) 2,982 12,121 4.1 86.0
Willie Parker (5'10", 209) 1,155 4,989 4.3 76.8
Brian Westbrook (5'8", 200) 1,247 5,721 4.6 57.8
Thomas Jones (5'10", 220) 1,949 7,815 4.0 59.2
Clinton Portis (5'11", 205) 2,052 9,209 4.5 92.0

 

Against the best comparison turns out to be Clinton Portis, but I'm trying to look towards the future.  Does LT stand a chance of recovering?  Since he's ahead of Portis, that comparison is of no help to us.  Dunn spent his years with TB with Mike Alstott, who took so many of the big hits for Dunn that it knocked him out of football, so that may not be the best comparison.  Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find a team that would want to make Dunn their feature-back these days.  Edge is a good comparison, but a scary one at that.  James came to Arizona, who didn't have the best offensive line, with 2,188 carries and has not been real successful in proving that he's still capable of being a feature-back in the league.  I know where we might be able to find a hopeful comparison....

Att Yds Avg Yds/G
LaDainian Tomlinson (5'10", 221) 2,657 11,760 4.4 92.6
Emmitt Smith (5'9", 210) - through 8 seasons 2,595 11,234 4.3 90.6

 

Well that'll work for a comparison, won't it?  Roughly the same size, same amount of carries in the same number of seasons, same number of games, same age (LT is a year older), same averages.  That worked out nicely.  Emmitt even had a similar drop-off in his numbers in his eight season.  This makes for a great comparison because unlike Edgerrin James, Emmitt remained behind a great offensive line later in his career.  So....the million dollar question....how did Emmitt perform after that eight season?

Quite well, actually.  Smith made the Pro Bowl in his ninth and tenth seasons, rushing 300+ times in each of them and collecting over 2,700 yards to go along with his 24 touchdowns.  He had three more productive, but not great, seasons after that with the Cowboys before playing two disappointing seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.

So health will determine this after all.  Emmitt Smith was one of the healthiest running backs in the history of the NFL, even in his later years, and Edgerrin James is not.  Time will tell which route LT and Clinton Portis travel down as they hit this crucial part in their careers.  All I know is, I wouldn't risk putting the weight of the world on LT's back and knees.  There's a dropoff in talent between Tomlinson and Gartrell Johnson for sure, and because of that I understand why people are so hesitant to want Gartrell to get a lot of carries, but I'm willing to bet there's no dropoff between an injured LT and a healthy Gartrell.  For that reason, I'm hoping that the Chargers see what's going on around the NFL and take the initiative to extend LT's career and make their offense more dynamic at the same time.

Add-On: The UT's LT tracker is fun to play with once you figure it out.  I can now spout out facts like in 2008 Tomlinson only had 5 rushes for 25+ yards and only one of those was a touchdown (at the end of the first Oakland game).  This calls for more posts about LT stats.

 

Do you have any thoughts about Bolts From The Blue?  Any tips you want to send our way?  Whenever you have something to say, don't hesitate to e-mail me directly.

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