Sports Outside the Beltway

LaDainian Tomlinson Best Ever?

Many have anointed San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson as the best ever to play the position. Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports thinks we should hold off a bit.

Let’s start this by saying that San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson is a truly great player. He is the clear choice for Most Valuable Player and the 30-something touchdowns he’s likely going to finish with are simply remarkable.

But to all those people, including San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer, who call Tomlinson the best ever, let’s just wait a second. Tomlinson is a splendid player who has just about every skill you could imagine, including the ability to throw passes when necessary.

Tomlinson has a great chance to set all sorts of records if he stays healthy. But in terms of singular greatness, he still hasn’t surpassed the work of Jim Brown, Walter Payton or Barry Sanders. Brown, who was ahead of his time, was an amazing combination of size, speed and power.

Payton had every move that Tomlinson possesses and performed at that level for a longer period of time. The same goes for Sanders, although there’s a good argument to be made that Tomlinson is a better power runner than Sanders.

This is not to say that Tomlinson won’t get there, but to anoint him now because he happens to have broken the NFL’s touchdown record in only 13 games and has had a very impressive six-year start to his career is getting ahead of the issue. While clusters of folk (media, fans or even coaches) seemingly don’t have the patience to wait, the coronation of Tomlinson still has to play out.

It also requires a little examination. Take the touchdown record, for example. What Tomlinson has done is an impressive feat. He has a record 29 in 13 games and could put the mark well out of sight. At least for awhile. But the touchdown record in football has become like the home run numbers in baseball from the late 1980s to now. In short, the numbers have exploded since the beginning of 2000. Over the past seven seasons, the touchdown record has been broken four times. That began with Marshall Faulk scoring 26 in 2000. Priest Holmes had 27 in 2003. Last year, Shaun Alexander had 28 with Seattle.

Beyond that, the 20-touchdown season is becoming a yearly standard. There have been at least nine times in which a running back has scored 20 touchdowns or more in the past seven years. By comparison, there were only 12 such seasons over the first 68 years that the NFL kept records.

A major reason for the recent explosion is the changes to the game, in particular the advent of wide-open offenses. A quick look at the four backs that have set the record over the past seven years is a good explanation. Faulk, Holmes, Alexander and Tomlinson are more slasher-type runners than power backs.

The reason that works well is that in today’s game, the field is more spread out with three- and four-receiver sets. In fact, Faulk customarily lined up in the slot with the Rams and Alexander is the only one in the quartet who hasn’t had a 70-catch season. With so many receivers on the field, holes are created in the defense.

Another factor is the decline in tackling skills of defensive players. With more coaches doing whatever they can to preserve their players in practice, defensive players simply don’t get the work at hitting and tackling that they need to be sharp. That’s particularly the case in working against the running game, leading to increased success for backs.

Especially for ones as talented as Tomlinson.

I would tend to agree. The only change in the game that has been detrimental to the running back is the fact that it’s much harder to build and maintain a cohesive offensive line than in the past, owing to the salary cap and free agency.

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