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Wondering about Tomlinson

Posted by Chase Stuart on September 19, 2007

Two weeks ago, every intelligent football fan on the planet would have said that LaDainian Tomlinson was the best running back in the NFL. In 2007 LT led the league in rushing, set the all time single-season touchdown record, and led the league in the famous yards over 3.0 statistic. So surely it is a surprise to all that through two weeks, Tomlinson currently ranks last among all RBs in yards per carry in 2007.

Tomlinson has played two tough defenses (Chicago and New England), and we're still dealing with a pretty small sample size. Those arguments would make a lot of sense if say, Tomlinson was averaging 2.9 yards per carry this year. But he's averaging 1.9 YPC right now, which puts him in the company of Derrick Blaylock 2006, Lamar Gordon 2004 and Ciatrick Fason 2005. Needless to say, I think there's cause to worry.

I wondered if maybe things just look bad because it's the first two weeks, and not weeks eight and nine. I looked at all RBs from 1995 to 2006, to see how many had: (a) had 35 or more carries in consecutive games, and (b) averaged 2.00 or fewer yards per carry in those games. Well, only five RBs in those twelve seasons met those criteria:

Edgerrin James	2006	crd	1.82	3.44
Kevan Barlow 2005 sfo 1.91 3.30
Quentin Griffin 2004 den 1.97 3.66
Eddie George 2001 oti 1.78 2.98
Darick Holmes 1996 buf 2.00 3.02

The last column shows how many YPC they averaged in the full season, and the second to last shows how many they averaged in their miserable two game slump. I love Tomlinson as much as the next guy, but that's a pretty miserable group of players to be paired with. Barlow, Griffin and Holmes were busts that had short spurts of success. James and George, while each would earn four trips to Hawaii, were miserable in those seasons and shells of their former selves. The idea that the best spin we could put on Tomlinson's 2007 season is "hey, he could do what Edgerrin James did in 2006" isn't very comforting to Chargers fans.

Let's expand things a little bit, though. Here's a list of RBs with 30+ carries that averaged 2.20 YPC or fewer over consecutive games during the same span:

Larry Johnson 2006 kan 2.00 4.30
Warrick Dunn 1998 tam 2.09 4.19
Marshall Faulk 1998 clt 2.13 4.07
Mario Bates 1995 nor 2.00 3.90
Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala 2001 pit 2.17 3.78
Mike Alstott 2002 tam 1.90 3.75
Quentin Griffin 2004 den 1.97 3.66
Karim Abdul-Jabbar 1996 mia 1.81 3.64
Jamal Anderson 2000 atl 1.90 3.63
Kevin Jones 2005 det 2.08 3.57
Karim Abdul-Jabbar 1998 mia 1.97 3.56
Jamal Anderson 1997 atl 2.03 3.46
Edgerrin James 2006 crd 2.10 3.44
Edgerrin James 2006 crd 1.82 3.44
Kevan Barlow 2004 sfo 2.20 3.37
Kevan Barlow 2005 sfo 1.91 3.30
Darick Holmes 1996 buf 2.00 3.02
Darick Holmes 1996 buf 2.08 3.02
Arlen Harris 2003 ram 2.14 3.00
Eddie George 2001 oti 1.78 2.98
Marshall Faulk 1996 clt 2.15 2.96
James Jackson 2001 cle 2.18 2.84
LeShon Johnson 1999 nyg 2.09 2.34
Lamar Gordon 2004 mia 1.74 1.83

The above list is sorted by the right column, yards per carry average in the full season. And yes, just a year ago, Larry Johnson suffered through a miserable stretch in weeks five and six. I suspect people will make of this what they like; if they own Tomlinson in a fantasy league, they'll accurately point out that superstar RBs like Johnson and Marshall Faulk (1998 version) had down games and still were studs. Conversely, if you don't believe Tomlinson can turn it around, you can point out that he's hit a level of ineptitude rarely matched, and by some of the worst RBs in modern memory. Even when Faulk did it (1996 version), he had by far the worst season of his career, and maybe Tomlinson is headed for his own down year.

It's easy to suggest that Tomlinson will be fine, and I'd never say otherwise. He's just too talented for me to put it print that Tomlinson won't be a stud. But I am concerned by the lack of comparables in recent history. I suspected that there'd be several star RBs that endured bad stretches, but really, there's very little to go on. Just three of the 24 RBs that have looked as bad at LT has looked averaged 4.00 YPC that season. Tomlinson has been flat out bad, so far, and who knows when he'll turn it back around. And while New England and Chicago are tough, Larry Johnson averaged 3.4 YPC against the Bears (LT 1.5), and Thomas Jones averaged 3.0 YPC against New England (LT 2.4). And it's not like we haven't seen the old Tomlinson run all over good defenses or the Patriots, before.

On the other hand, Tomlinson has had some ugly moments over the years. He had 17 carries for 7 yards in a game against the Eagles in 2005. He had a five game run in the middle of 2004 where he averaged just 2.88 yards per carry. Previously, his lowest YPC averages in a two game stretch were 2.24, 2.69, 2.69, 2.78 and 2.86. All I know for now, is 1.94 certainly sticks out. It's the worst two-game stretch of his 99 game career. His offensive line has performed significantly worse than they did in '06, and Tomlinson himself hasn't looked as good, either. At this point, I'd feel a lot better about his future chances if he said he had the flu the past two weeks and just didn't tell anyone.