Let me start this off by saying that through all of my rants of needing to split carries with LT and him having old, tired legs due to him taking more carries than any current running back year in and year out I never once thought "We need to get rid of LT."
Did he bother me a little bit this year when he complained about the playcalling and the play of the O-Line? A little bit, but it showed his desire to contribute to the game. I think it had more to do with that than it being a "I'm not getting mine" statement. Did I think he looked nothing like the LT of old this year? Well, yeah. With the possible exception of the Denver game. I don't think I saw a single "big run" from him all year. You know, those runs where he's going down the sideline and JUST getting to the endzone while the announcers say things like "You don't hear about LT having great speed, but he has just enough." I also don't think I saw him juke anyone out of their shoes this year. It seemed every time he went for the big, dramatic cut he ended up falling down.
Now, to recap my old argument....my feelings stated above have rationale attached to them. I think he has tired legs. See my entire argument here. My solution has always been to just give the man less carries. I feel like this is what the Patriots would do. Does LT still have tons of special skills and talents with the ball in his hand? I think so. But I also think he'd be better showing them off if he touched the ball 10-15 times a game instead of 20-30 times. So my thought process is that we'd find somebody that could share those carries with Tomlinson and the whole thing would work itself out.
Then I stayed in San Diego for a week. Leading up to the Denver game and then for two days afterwards. I enjoyed waking up each morning and reading every Chargers article in the Union Tribune. Then one day I'm half-way through what I think is a fluff-piece artcle about LT when the idea of trading him is brought up. I forget exactly who wrote the article, but I want to say it was Kevin Acee. By the end of the article I was almost agreeing with his general point, which was that outside of Walter Payton every major running back in the history of the NFL has gone down in production pretty significantly after hitting 30 years of age. It had it backed up with stats the ran from the top of the page all the way to the bottom. It was impossible to deny. (There's another tidbit about it this morning on ProFootballTalk.com)But the fact that the Chargers were supposedly thinking about trading LT hit me like a ton of bricks and still feels funny....and a little haunting.
A couple of other things are forcing the Chargers hand as well. Let's touch on them.
1) The Gameplan - The best thing to come out of this season is the growth of Rivers. I thought at the end of last year that we had seen how good he would be. Boy, was I wrong. He's still young, he's still learning and he's still recovering from his knee injury. He's going to get better! That's unbelievable. Norv Turner is a great fit for him and that's part of the reason Norv's job was safe even when we were 4-8. The team, after years of not having to worry about the ground game, has now stock-piled the players to be a pass-first team. That's fine, as probably more than half of the teams in the NFL are now pass-first teams, but Tomlinson's complaints about the gameplan made me think that he wouldn't be too happy on a pass-first team, even if they were winning. Although part of that may be because Rivers seems to miss Tomlinson on ever flank pass he throws to him.
2) Young Talent - It wasn't that long ago that when you drafted a player you expected him to contribute in his third year. The only teams that started their rookies were the teams that had nothing to lose. Brees played well enough to keep Rivers on the bench in his first year, but anyone remember Brees riding the bench when it was fairly obvious that he was a better option that Flutie? These days rookies are expected to contribute on day one and have had such good training in high school and college that they can. Look at all of the first and second-year running backs that ranked among the league's best this year: Adrian Peterson, Steve Slaton, Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, Kevin Smith, Jonathan Stewart
The Chargers have an opportunity to take one of their biggest cap numbers off the books and IMPROVE the position if they can find one of these stud young running backs. They don't even have to use a first-round pick. Out of the seven players listed above, how many were first round picks? Three? Four? Peterson, Lynch and Jonathan Stewart were. I'm not sure about Kevin Smith. We could be in a position to draft a stud rookie running back (hopefully a bruiser who can blocks and has good hands) and split his carries during his first year with someone. Hell, if we wanted to be sure we could trade Tomlinson for any pick we wanted. More of the good college running backs are turning into good rookie running backs that would work just fine in our talented, pass-first offense.
3) Value - From what I could find, LaDainian is currently the highest paid RB in football at about 8 million a year. After this year the league will probably be split down the middle between teams that think he's through as a star and teams that think he had a down year due to injuries, gamplan, media pressure, bad O-line and bad luck. If we put him on the market and said "We pay nothing and we want a first round pick", somebody would jump at that, right? Off hand I'll list some teams I think would make that deal: New England, Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Seattle and Houston. Seeing how Tomlinson has been in the league for a while and all with the same team, I believe he has an automatic no-trade clause. I could be wrong and he may not have hit that point yet.
My main point here is that half of the teams in the league still see great value in LT. First round value. If he has another year like this one next season, will there be anyone left who won't think that he's done as a star in the league? If you're going to ship him off, you have to do it this offseason.
4) Darren Sproles - Hero of the Colts game. If we go any further in the playoffs, he'll be hero of the season. Maybe not a starter, but a hell of a weapon that fits in very well with our team and does several different important jobs. Although he's an injury risk and always will be, I think keeping him is something we'd like to do. The logical result from a Tomlinson trade is that we get a rookie running back who "starts". The benefits of doing that for Sproles are two-fold. One, we have the money to sign him back without going over the cap and two, we can give him more carries (7-10 a game) without hurting the ego of a proven star running back.
So there you have it. I didn't mean to take anyone's mind or focus away from the game in Pittsburgh, but after seeing the Pro Football Talk article this morning (which says that the way Tomlinson's injury was treated shows signs that he's setting up for a trade) I wanted to put all of this out there. In the comments, put your reaction, analysis or prediction for the HB position next year.