Welcome to the San Diego Chargers offseason, folks. It's bound to be a doozy. This is the first installment of the "Should the Chargers Keep..." series, which argues the point from both sides of the fence before coming up with a conclusion. Darren Sproles, Vincent Jackson, Shawne Merriman, Nate Kaeding and a few others will all have their turn, but today we focus on LaDainian Tomlinson.
I plan on, sometime in the offseason, doing an X's and O's post (that'll make a lot of people happy) that correlates with this to see just how effective or ineffective LT was in the 2009 season. Also, this topic will be heavily discussed on this week's podcast (which will be either tonight or tomorrow night, I'll let you know later today). But without further ado......
UPDATE: Podcast is tonight! Join me and Mr. Richard Wade at 9pm EST/6pm PST as we break down the Jets/Chargers game, the offseason ahead for the Bolts and the remaining playoff matchups.
Why the Chargers Should Release LT:
Money: Let me start by saying that I don't know how much LaDainian made in 2009. He was due to make $3.825 million, with a $2 million bonus on top of that if he reached a certain number of rushing yards during the season. What that number is, I couldn't tell you. Let's start by assuming that he didn't reach it though, considering his subpar season. USA Today's numbers factor in LT's signing bonus, that he received for restructuring his contract, and have LT coming out of 2009 $7.5 million dollars richer (making him the 2nd highest paid RB behind Reggie Bush).
In 2010, Tomlinson is due to make $5 million. The team will probably look at is as a $2.5 million dollar pay cut, but it's still going to be difficult for the team to again justify paying LT like he's a top 10 RB when he's not.
Mileage: I'll tell you a little story. The first time I did a podcast with 619Sports, one of the topics that they wanted to talk about was whether LT was "done". Me, being the nerd that I am, decided that stats could answer this question. What I found was the most clear-cut stat that I've ever seen, and I've brought it up every single time I've been asked about LT since. The stat, summarized, points out that LaDainian has carried the ball a ridiculous amount of times (and that's just in the pros) and a RB's effectiveness can easily be seen to drop with each carry the RB takes.
Let's dive into this stat quickly. The top 5 active RBs in terms of carries: Edgerrin James, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis, Fred Taylor and Thomas Jones. "Wait", you're saying, "Taylor and Jones are still somewhat effective." Right you are, but LT has 400 more carries than Fred Taylor and 600 more carries than Thomas Jones. Let's let those guys get 15-20 carries each game for the next two seasons and then see how effective they are.
When you look at career carries, there are a number of players that had great careers that came to limping ends. Everyone wondered "What happened?" to guys like Thurman Thomas, Eddie George, Marshall Faulk, Ricky Watters, Corey Dillion and Shaun Alexander. The answer is that the pounding they took over their careers finally inhibited them just enough to take away their gifts. Each one of those guys had less carries over the course of their careers than LT.
Ego/Power: I don't think LT is egotistical. I read that book his mom wrote and found LT to be the kind soul that we all know him to be. However, Tomlinson is not a team leader (which he admits). When things are not going his way, especially in a big game, he sulks. I'd probably do the same thing, but the fact remains: when the going gets tough, LT can ramp up his own drive and determination but he cannot help his teammates. Like most RBs, LT plays the game with blinders on.
What's funny about LT, being the star of this team, is that he's in front of the camera and answering questions so often that you know exactly what he's thinking, even if it's the opposite from what he's saying. In the two seasons previous to this, it was obvious that he was not happy with his diminished role on the team and probably thought poorly of Norv behind closed doors. This season, in which the team won 11 straight games and Tomlinson was a TD machine despite being maybe the 3rd best RB on the team, LT seemed to lighten up and enjoy the ride. He came out and publicly praised Norv. All seems right, but where there was once problems there could be again.
Imagine if LT comes back, is asked to be a backup and then the team starts losing. Or if he comes back and they lose another heart-breaking playoff game. The reporters will flock to him because he has a famous face and because there's a chance that he'll throw his coach under the bus. Whether or not that ever happens....it's a distraction to have that possibility around. The most dangerous guy in the locker room is the fading star who has nothing to lose.
Effectiveness: LT had a lower YPC this season than Darren Sproles, Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester. He had less than half as many catches as Sproles, and only 3 more than Tolbert. LT has become a 2-down RB that cannot run effectively. That really is all that needs to be written, but I'll go on.
Contrary to popular belief, teams do not get that much better simply because of experience. They get better by adding talent, and usually it's young talent. The Chargers passing game didn't get better for no reason. It got better because Malcom Floyd was an improvement over Chris Chambers. The defense didn't magically get better after Week 6 because Ron Rivera willed it to. It got better because Kevin Ellison and Steve Gregory were improvements over the guys they replaced. I'm tired of hearing people blame the offensive line. This line is better than the line in 2008, because Louis Vasquez and Brandyn Dombrowski are better than the guys they replaced.
The Chargers, who I'm hoping are a very self-aware team, have to be looking around the league and seeing how bringing young talent into the fold can help any part of the team. The Titans offense got better because Chris Johnson got his hands on the ball more. He was essentially the same player last season. The Jets offense has gotten better this season as Shonn Greene has taken on a larger role.
As strong as the Bolts offense was this season, the goal has to be to improve all three phases of the game each offseason. With the offensive line and receiving corps pretty much set, the only way they Chargers can improve their offense in 2010 is by bringing in young talent that is better than LT is right now.
Why the Chargers Should Keep LT:
Tony Gwynn and Johnny Unitas: Did the Padres hold on to Gwynn when he was still an ineffective player? Absolutely. Did I, as a fan, rally against it? No. I had seen the footage of Unitas and Namath as Chargers QBs. I remember Joe Montana playing with the Chiefs. I see Brett Favre enjoying life as a Viking. All of their respective "career" teams, the ones that they'll go back to when their number is retired, gave up on them as a shrewd business move. Sometimes it works (Aaron Rodgers) and sometimes it doesn't.
Some teams prefer to keep those players on the roster until the player decides to hang 'em up, so as to show the fans "Hey, we don't want to see this guy in another uniform either." The Padres did it with Gwynn and the Chargers have an opportunity to do it with Tomlinson. He has two more years left on his contract, and I doubt he plans on playing past those years. If they choose to keep LT a Charger for life, they'll be showing class and earning respect.
Replenishing the Backfield: Here's the point I've been making all season long as to why I think LT might be back. I don't think the team values Sproles nearly as much as some other teams do. Buster Davis and Antoine Cason each returned punts and kicks in college and could fill that role. Even as a return man, Sproles has been somewhat disappointing in 2009.
So....what happens if Sproles isn't back? Do you think the team is ready to go with a backfield of (rookie), Michael Bennett and Hester/Tolbert? I don't. I don't even think Bennett will be back. If LT is willing to split carries and be a backup (and based on how happy he was this year, paired with the fact that his whole life is in SD, I believe he would), it would be one less spot in the backfield that needs to be filled in the offseason.
L-Teacher: The crop of free agent running backs this offseason had no stars. It will be hurt even more if there's not a new CBA agreement, and all signs point to that being a pipedream at this point. So if the Chargers are in the market for a starting RB, they have two avenues. They could work a trade or they could draft one.
History tells us that AJ Smith would probably prefer to draft a RB, but let's assume they go with a trade. I, for one, think there will be plenty of good RBs on the trade market if someone is looking for one. Even if the Chargers were to go that route, having a player like LT in the backfield could only be an asset to an incoming RB. He could help with the playbook, reads and even give tips like "Don't steal Dielman's pudding cup".
Obviously, if the Bolts bring in a rookie LT's experience and willingness to teach are even more valuable. Just as Maurice Jones-Drew credits Fred Taylor for making him the player he is, there are countless stories of young players learning the ropes from an older player and it helping them to become better players faster. Heck, even Philip Rivers credits Drew Brees for showing him how to be an NFL QB. With a player of LT's caliber, the rookie is sure to listen, and with LT's track-record you could be assured that he'd help lead the kid down the right path in life as well.
Respect: Maybe it wasn't there as much against the Jets, but for the majority of this season Chargers fans saw a funny thing. Although Tomlinson was ranked amongst the worst RBs in the league, teams were still respecting him in the backfield. Many of those long Rivers-to-Jackson throws were the result of the Safety jumping forward on a play-action to LT. On a team that strictly needs the run to keep defenses honest, having a reputation as one of the NFL's greatest RBs goes a long way.
Even non-Chargers fans, at least half of them, believed that LT just needed to get healthy and he'd be putting up 200 yard games again. Players from opposing locker rooms don't point out that LT hasn't had a great year, they point out the career he's had and the talent that is still there in flashes. They call him "dangerous" because everyone is just waiting for him to explode into the player he once was. Will he ever? It's doubtful, but teams are not going to risk having 6 guys in the box when he's in the backfield because they don't want it to happen against them.
Strange as it sounds, I think the whole thing depends on Sproles. He's a decent enough backup, and also brings good return skills to the table. If the team can get him to sign for $2-3 million a year, which would be a bargain compared to Tomlinson at $5 million, I think LT has to go. If the Lightning Bug isn't signing for anything less than $4 million, I think you have to look at the idea of a rookie and LT splitting carries as the better option.