Tomlinson and the Best All-Purpose RBs
June 19, 2012 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
LaDainian Tomlinson announced his retirement on Monday, signing a one-day contract to end his career with the San Diego Chargers, who drafted him fifth overall in 2001. Tomlinson will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, a cinch for pro football's greatest honor.
Tomlinson rushed for 13,684 yards (5th all-time) and 145 touchdowns (2nd all-time). He also caught 624 passes, 3rd-most of any RB, and 2nd-most of any real RB (we'll count Marshall Faulk, but Larry Centers did not play the same position as Tomlinson). He was so dominant a player that other than a few bitter Giants fans, no one really minded that he appropriated the nickname L.T., once reserved for legendary linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Besides, the guy had a seven-syllable, difficult-to-spell name, and he was going by his initials. Give him a break. It isn't like he wanted to be called Sweetness or The King or The Juice. Speaking of which, if a good player like Ottis Anderson can be O.J., let's cut a great player like Tomlinson some slack for being L.T.
Tomlinson rushed for 1,000 yards eight times, tied for the 4th-most ever, and his 162 TDs rank 3rd all-time, behind only Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith. L.T. led the NFL in rushing yardage twice, in rushing TDs three times, and in yards from scrimmage once. He rushed for 1,400 yards five times, trailing only Barry Sanders and Walter Payton.
Tomlinson is distinguished by two particularly extraordinary seasons. In 2003, he rushed for 1,645 yards, with a 5.3 average, scored 17 touchdowns, and caught 100 passes. For a 4-12 team. It is my contention that without L.T., the Chargers would not have won a game that season.
They got their first win in Week 7, beating the Browns 26-20. Tomlinson rushed for 200 yards, with a 7.7 average. If he'd only rushed for say, 150, San Diego probably loses that game. When the Chargers beat Miami 42-28, L.T. had 162 rushing yards, 45 receiving yards, and 2 TDs. In Week 14: 88 rushing yards, plus 9 catches for 148 yards and 2 TDs, in a 14-7 victory. Week 17, 21-14 over the Raiders: 243 rushing, 7.8 average, 2 TDs. He was the difference between 4-12 or 0-16.
Three years later, Tomlinson won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, and NFL MVP. He rushed for 1,815 yards, averaged 5.2 per carry, gained over 500 yards as a receiver, and scored 31 TDs. That single-season touchdown record will probably never fall in a 16-game season. Based on two legendary seasons, several other great years, and his consistent production as both a runner and receiver, I rank L.T. as the 5th- or 6th-best running back in history, trailing only Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, and perhaps Marshall Faulk.
SI's Peter King has written that Tomlinson was the 2nd-best all-purpose back of the last 30 years, behind Faulk. I would probably agree with that, but just to be argumentative, here's the case for L.T. being number one:
1. Tomlinson was a much more accomplished rusher. He had more yards (13,684) than Faulk (12,279), with the same rushing average (both 4.3), and many more touchdowns (145-100). Tomlinson had more 1,000-yard seasons and more double-digit TD seasons, and five times rushed for more yards in a season than Faulk's career high (1,382).
2. Tomlinson was a great receiver. Everyone knows Faulk was a great receiver, and everyone acknowledges that he was better than L.T. Faulk probably could have been a Pro Bowl wideout. But Tomlinson had more 50-reception seasons, and his 100 catches in '03 were far more than Faulk's career high (87). Among true RBs, only Faulk himself had more receptions than L.T. Tomlinson was such a good ball-carrier that it overshadowed his receiving, and he was seldom credited as a great receiver out of the backfield.
If you're looking for a versatile, all-around back, I would concede that Faulk should be your top choice. But L.T. was also extremely valuable as both a rusher and receiver, and I believe it's an open question which was the better player. Anyway, King ranked Tomlinson as the 2nd-best all-purpose back of the last 30 years. Here's his list of the top five:
1. Marshall Faulk
2. LaDainian Tomlinson
3. Thurman Thomas
4. Darren Sproles
5. Marcus Allen
Okay, does anyone else notice a name that doesn't fit?
I've always liked Darren Sproles. He was so productive at Kansas State, I couldn't understand why NFL teams were convinced his size would be a problem at the pro level. He was valuable in San Diego, and he was sensational last year for the Saints. But he's not one of the top 20 all-purpose backs of the last 30 years, much less the top four. Actually, this is a chance to get something useful out of an otherwise meaningless formula that has been sitting on my computer for a couple of years: the best rushing/receiving RBs in history.
The formula is somewhat complicated, but it is similar to a power-speed rating in baseball, finding the harmonic mean between a rushing score based on yardage, efficiency, and TDs, and a receiving score based on yardage and scoring. It also accounts for peak performance, using a player's three best seasons. Here are the top 10 from 1982-2011:
1. Marshall Faulk
2. Marcus Allen
3. LaDainian Tomlinson
4. Thurman Thomas
5. Tiki Barber
6. Priest Holmes
7. Roger Craig
8. Herschel Walker
9. Edgerrin James
10. Charlie Garner
I think that's a pretty intuitive list, one that most fans would agree is a reasonably accurate depiction of the best all-around RBs in recent history. And I suspect that no one except Peter King and maybe Jon Gruden would argue for Darren Sproles to displace anyone on that list.
Let's take Charlie Garner. In his career, Garner rushed for 7,097 yards and 39 TDs. He caught 419 passes for 3,711 yards and 12 TDs. Sproles, so far, has rushed for 1,757 yards and 8 TDs, with 232 catches for 2,110 yards and 18 TDs. Maybe I'm missing something, but it's not clear to me how Sproles +6 advantage in receiving TDs makes him a better all-purpose back than Garner's advantages of 5,340 rushing yards, 31 rushing TDs, 113 receptions, and 1,601 receiving yards. I realize there's a lot more to football than stats, but these two don't even belong in the same sentence, and it's Garner who's clearly ahead.
Look, Sproles had a great season in 2011, a truly great season. He rushed for 603 yards, added 710 receiving, gained almost 1,400 return yards, and scored 10 TDs. But is that better than Garner in 2002? He gained 962 yards rushing and 941 receiving, with 11 TDs. And while Sproles has never had another season like 2011, Garner had several other very good years. In Sproles' 2nd-best seasons to date, he gained 343 rushing yards and 520 receiving yards, respectively. Garner rushed for more than 343 yards 10 times, and gained more than 520 receiving four times. And we're only talking about Charlie Garner, not Edgerrin James or Roger Craig or Tiki Barber.
Here are a few others:
Look, I'm above pointing out that Peter King apparently forgot Tiki Barber, Priest Holmes, and Roger Craig (no, I'm not). But it's not clear to me that Sproles measures up yet to John L. Williams and Eric Metcalf, much less Marcus Allen.
Allen rushed for more yards in 1985 than Sproles has in his entire seven-year career. That same season, Allen caught 67 passes for 555 yards and 3 TDs. He was named NFL MVP. Allen's career-high in receiving yardage (758) is higher than Sproles' (710). King ranked Sproles ahead because "Allen wasn't as explosive," which is a weird thing to write about someone with 144 career touchdowns and more yards per reception (9.2) than Sproles (9.1).
What about Brian Westbrook? Like Sproles, he was a very good returner, but he was a better receiver, and he was light years ahead as a ball-carrier. Westbrook in 2007 had one of the most dynamic and valuable seasons I've ever seen from a running back.
Really, "best all-purpose backs of the last 30 years" is kind of a canard. Would we truly take Craig or Garner or Watters ahead of Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders just because they were more active receivers? Of course not, a thousand times no. LaDainian Tomlinson is one of the 10 greatest running backs in NFL history, maybe top-five. He doesn't need some phony category to elevate him or demonstrate his greatness.
Tomlinson seems to me a little underrated, because he didn't excel at one obvious thing like Faulk (receiving) or Earl Campbell (power) or Gale Sayers (breaking defenders' ankles). But there was nothing L.T. didn't do well. He wasn't the speediest back in the league, but he was fast. He wasn't the strongest, but he wouldn't go down on the first hit. He was agile, with great cuts and very quick acceleration; that change of direction and acceleration out of the break really separated him from the rest of the league. He was the best in the game at reading the hole and following his blocks. He was a superb receiver out of the backfield. After his rookie year, he seldom fumbled. And like Marcus Allen, he seemed to get even better in goal-to-go situations.
Tomlinson was the unquestioned star RB of his generation, a standout who combined a sensational peak with a reasonably long career. He really was a versatile and valuable all-purpose back, but we don't need a classification like that to appreciate his greatness. My rushing/receiving formula? That's just a screwing-around project, something that's interesting but not really meaningful.
Having said that, I'll leave you with the formula's all-time top 30. This is a mathematical computation, not necessarily representative of my opinion. I realize I haven't explained what the numbers mean, but they'll give you an idea how players compare to one another. I think the formula does a reasonably good job of balancing longevity with peak performance, so that players who stuck around forever and caught 30 passes every year aren't ranked ahead of great receivers with shorter careers.
1. Marshall Faulk, 1145
2. Marcus Allen, 963
3. LaDainian Tomlinson, 960
4. Thurman Thomas, 883
5. Tiki Barber, 882
6. Priest Holmes, 839
7. Walter Payton, 833
8. Roger Craig, 831
9. Herschel Walker, 829
10. Edgerrin James, 824
11. Lenny Moore, 820
12. Jim Brown, 776
13. Charlie Garner, 769
14. Ricky Watters, 769
15. Steven Jackson, 762
16. Brian Westbrook, 758
17. Ahman Green, 758
18. Chuck Foreman, 738
19. Emmitt Smith, 734
20. William Andrews, 734
21. Barry Sanders, 726
22. James Brooks, 725
23. Lydell Mitchell, 725
24. Abner Haynes, 715
25. Clem Daniels, 695
26. Frank Gore, 693
27. Tony Dorsett, 686
28. Ottis Anderson, 678
29. Frank Gifford, 675
30. Curtis Martin, 669
Sproles' score will rise as his career continues, but right now he's at 377.
Bobby Mitchell, a Hall of Fame wide receiver who probably could have been a Hall of Fame running back, rates at 593, because he became a full-time WR and ended up with a low career rushing score. He obviously was one of the five or so best rusher-receivers in history.