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The decline of LaDainian Tomlinson

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Neil Reynolds | 12:48 UK time, Thursday, 5 November 2009

Earlier this season I wrote a blog about how Reggie Bush was little more than a luxury bit-part player for the New Orleans Saints. It was an easy article to write because I don't really know Reggie that well (although I did spend some time with him when he was in the UK in 2008) and while I can appreciate his athletic skills, he is not someone I tune in to watch every weekend.

This week, my editor asked me to look at the declining form of San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. And this is a much tougher article to write because it focuses on one of my favourite players and favourite people in the NFL.

Tomlinson stands for everything that is good about the NFL. He has been a tremendous athlete over the years, is a wonderful role model and is a down-to-earth, all-round nice guy.

I spent quite a bit of time with him during the summer of 2008 when he was in the UK and again when the Chargers returned for the international series game against the Saints at Wembley Stadium.

Tomlinson has struggled to reach his previous level of play this season

Each time, LT was an absolute pleasure to deal with and was a true class act. But being a class act off the field means nothing in the 'what have you done for me lately' NFL. This league is all about production and there is no getting away from the fact that Tomlinson's form has tailed off massively in the past season and a half.

There are many pundits in the United States who are suggesting Tomlinson's body is beginning to break down and the hard yards have caught up with the 30-year-old, who is in his ninth season.

It's hard to argue against that line of thinking. I don't believe for one second that Tomlinson has lost any of the skill and vision that has helped him gain 12,027 rushing yards and score 144 touchdowns during a glittering career.

But his body doesn't seem willing to let him make an assault on the league rushing record of 18,355 yards held by Emmitt Smith, who trundled along for 15 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals. And that is a shame because Tomlinson looked to be a real contender to challenge that record after making such a fast start out of the gate.

With defenders growing bigger and hitting harder than ever before, many running backs across the league can consider themselves fortunate to last 10 years at the top. Tomlinson could also be slowing down due to the fact he carried San Diego's running game single-handedly from 2001-2007.

LT was hugely successful during that time but he also took a lot of body blows and those cumulative hits appear to have taken their toll.

Tomlinson didn't miss any games in 2008 but he was slowed by a nagging toe injury and rushed for a career-low 1,110 yards. His burst was lacking and he was unable to change direction off his bad foot in the usual explosive manner.

It has been a similar tale of injury woe this season. Tomlinson sprained his right ankle in the season opener against Oakland and missed the next two contests. And his numbers have been very pedestrian since returning to the line-up.

His best effort came against Kansas City when he gained 71 yards - he would have been good for that in a single quarter in 2006 - but even that performance was blighted by the fact he was held out of the end zone on nine attempts inside Kansas City's five-yard line during the course of the game.

Last week, Tomlinson scored two touchdowns but only gained 56 yards on 18 carries against the Raiders. He has not been helped by injuries to offensive linemen Nick Hardwick and Louis Vasquez, but the physical skills that made LT so good appear to have waned.

As sad as that is to admit, it is a harsh truth. And the Chargers have seen this decline coming for a little while. They worked hard to keep Darren Sproles in the backfield when he became a free agent this past off-season and do you really consider this to be Tomlinson's team now?

The 2009 Chargers will go as far as the arm of quarterback Philip Rivers can carry them. Tomlinson remains a vital member of the attack, but he is no longer the cog that would be considered the most important in the San Diego machine.

That saddens me, but Tomlinson's recent decline should not detract from what has been a great career. It's just a case that, for some running backs, when the end comes, it comes at break-neck speed. That looks like being the case for Tomlinson.

Game of the Week

The Chargers take on the New York Giants on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra on Sunday night and it is a chance for both clubs to make a statement.

The Chargers have not beaten a team with a winning record this season and the Giants will be keen to show they have Super Bowl pedigree by getting a victory after the three straight losses that have followed their 5-0 start.

Rivers will be licking his chops at the thought of attacking New York's weak secondary, while the Giants will look to get physical with the Chargers and pound the football on the ground through Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin is not happy with his team and I think he will drive them hard and demand a better performance. And his influence on the sidelines will lead New York to a much-needed victory.

San Diego 24, New York Giants 30

You can catch Neil commentating on an NFL game every Sunday at 2100 GMT on BBC 5 live sports extra throughout the season.(UK users only).


  • Comment number 1.

    Neil, like you I don't want to believe it but I think this may be the end of LT being a premier back in this league. The injuries have caught up with him over the last few years (as they have the trusty O-Line).

    LT could still be useful as a back-up but cant be the 20-30 carries a game running back he once was.

    Which leads me to Sproules; the Chargers have put a lot of money into him and this year are not getting anything like the production they should be. Averaging 3.4 yards a carry and one rush of over 20 yards is not enough for supposedly one of the most explosive players in the NFL and LT's successor. Do you think the Chargers regret the decision to let Michael Turner go?

    Vincent Jackson (can you believe he is 3rd on reception yards and averages 96 yards per game), Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers are clearly the stars of this offense.

  • Comment number 2.

    If you knew more about how the game is played, you wouldn't be putting this all on LT's so called degrading body. The change in the coaching staff since Marty has left has taken a lot of focus away from the running game. LT can not make big plays if the coach isn't calling the right play for it, or if the O-Line isn't doing its job. The O-Line hasn't been practicing the running plays as much as before and it shows. They have been spending more time on passer protection, and it also shows. As far as this year goes, the O-Line has been in tatters since the 1st game agains oakland. Hardwick has been out since then and is a HUGE key in creating holes up the line for LT. After all Hardwick is a 5 time pro-baller. I do agree that LTs injurys are probably worse now that he is older, but as far as his ability to break linemans ankles and pull amazing plays, it is still there; The rest of the teams just needs to step up and do their part.

  • Comment number 3.

    Dan you're right, the Chargers are in transition from being an assured running team, to letting Rivers throw it about. I'm not buying the fact that LT is done and finished yet, but he's not the explosive force he was. The answer is to mix it up, and yes that relies on a fit offense, in particular Hardwick. The QB coaches and Rivers have to switch the mindset of "throw it Phil" to a more balanced approach. Chicago have a similar issue - a quarterback with an arm that can kill you, but with an offense that's always, always, always going to want to run it first. At the end of the day, both the Bears and Chargers are going to struggle for a winning season, let alone clinch a post season berth. Guess it's not just a case of the rest of the team stepping up, more a case of playing to your strengths. If that's a case of Rivers throwing bombs that get caught, LT might have a long wait to get close to Emmitt Smith.

  • Comment number 4.

    very good

  • Comment number 5.

    Dan... First of all, I have a pretty good idea how this game is played thanks very much - I don't think they'd let me on here without some clue of what was going on :-)... But you make some valid comments. I too don't think LT is completely washed up and I never actually said that. I said he is in decline and that is a fact.

    I also did mention the offensive line being part of the problem, especially the loss over the past 2 years of Hardwick... I am certainly not pinning all this on LT. But I think the transition to a passing team came about because the running game cannot be relied upon as much nowadays.

    But one person I didn't mention is Lorenzo Neal at FB - he was a great blocker and Tomlinson loved him. He said Neal was crazy and would inflict great punishment on the defense while opening some massive holes.

    LT has never been the same back since he left town.

  • Comment number 6.

    I disagree with Dan to the extent that the wear and tear on LT's body does have something to do with his declining production. If he were the LT of 5 years ago, even with fewer hand-offs, he'd still be ripping out regular 100yd games and scoring his share of TDs.

    However I think Dan is spot on regarding the shift in approach with the Chargers offense - that they were going to use the ground game less was rather confirmed when they let Turner go to Atlanta, he was the obvious candidate to take an increasing share of the carries if the same style offense was set to continue.

    LT though, what a player, and for those of us who went to Wembley last year for the Saints-Chargers, there were some memorable flashes of vintage LT. But there was also signs that he had lost some of his explosive pace, such that he now looks like a solid veteran RB, not an elite carrier.

    More ruthless organisations than the Chargers might well had traded LT this off-season, provided they could sign a solid downhill unit to pair with Sproles. Maybe they will bite the bullet this season... But either way, LT will never be forgotten as probably the most complete RB of this decade.

    On this weekend's game, I like the look of the Chargers. Huge motivation to win and rachet up the pressure on Denver for the AFC West title.

    Coughlin no doubt has reamed his players, but no amount of old-school coaching is going to fix that secondary. Jackson, Floyd and Gates are all tall receivers, Rivers has to like every potential match-up. And the Chargers still have a ground game to be respected, so I predict long afternoon for the Giants defense.

    And to the extent Eli has to go out and win this game for his team, I wouldn't want to count on it. There's also the history of how he arrived at New York, traded from San Diego in exchange for Rivers and several draft picks, and that will have to weigh on his mind if he's on the side-line watching Rivers stomp all over his Giants.

    Chargers to win 31-21, Rivers to lead the celebrations.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hey Dan, what's your beef? If Neil played for 10 years I'm sure he knows a lot more about football than your average poster on here.

    I thought Tomlinson was poor last year, regardless of run protection issues or coaching changes (and giving him some leeway for the ridiculously high standard he set in 2006). This was set in stark contrast to the emergence of Sproles, playing with the same o-line and coaching (5.4 yds per carry versus Tomlinson's 3.8).

    This year LT's been a virtual non-entity. Not a great leap to conclude his form is declining.

  • Comment number 8.

    Obviously Neil's experience of 10 years in the BAFL counts as much as 10 years of playing flag football in the park. It's a chicken and egg situation to me... but the probable cause is: What does a coach do when his star RB is out of form? Start throwing plays. Not the other way around.

  • Comment number 9.

    What I don´t like about LT was his behaviour in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots 2 seasons ago. After a few minutes he had to leave the game injured. This was bad luck and a big disappointment but did he try in some way to help his team ? No, he sat sulking on the bench the whole game through and he didn´t even take his protection mask off let alone rally he colleagues. That was the moment I realised LT plays for LT. Oh and when running backs hit 30 their tanks are usually empty.
    Brandon Jacobs to have a good game, Giants 24-21.

  • Comment number 10.

    It is sad to see that LT is no longer among the top runnning backs in the league. It is safe to say that when the chargers invested alot of money in Darren sproles it is was the beginning of the end for LT. He should of been traded last year but the fear of fans backlash was the reason for keeping him one more year.

  • Comment number 11.

    Sure, LT is not keeping up with Peterson, Chris Johnson and the other young running backs, but it's more instructive to compare him with the other 30+ year old backs. On the yards gained this year, LT is 36th, but only Jamal Lewis (30) and Thomas Jones (31) of those above him are older than him.

    Interestingly, 3 weeks ago, everyone was saying Thomas Jones was on the decline, then he ran for 433 yards in 3 games and is 5th leading rusher in NFL this year.

  • Comment number 12.


    I can't agree with the phrase "He has been a tremendous athlete over the years, is a wonderful role model and is a down-to-earth, all-round nice guy."

    Let's cast our minds back to the AFC Divisional Playoff in 2006, when New England came from down 8 late in the 4th quarter thanks to some shocking playcalling from Marty Schottenheimer. Among others, Tomlinson showed a real lack of class in the post-game press conference accusing the Patriots players of disrespecting San Diego and showing a real lack of class, which perhaps stemmed from the head coach.

    Then again, his professionalism (or lack thereof) showed through in the week following Spygate, where he accused the Patriots of "not trying if they're not cheating". This was just after the Chargers had barely scraped a win in the opening game and Tomlinson had had his worst game for a good while. As a result, the Patriots fired themselves up and opened a can of whoop-ass on San Diego strolling to a 38-14 victory and holding Tomlinson to a career-low 43 yards rushing.

    Then there's the AFC Championship game in 2007, played in frosty Foxborough where Tomlinson cried off the whole game with a stubbed toe while quarterback Philip Rivers played the entire game with an ACL injury he had suffered the previous week against Indianapolis, and despite losing, earnt the respect of virtually the entire league, including I suspect many Patriots. So while I concede he is indeed a great athlete, he is sadly not the professional you make him out to be.

  • Comment number 13.

    Good point about lorenzo neal. The fullbacks deserve a lot of the credit, e.g. tony richardson always playing second fiddle to Thomas Jones and Leon Washington at the jets.


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