The decline of LaDainian Tomlinson
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).