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LaDainian Tomlinson: Not Toast

Posted by Neil Paine on October 4, 2010

Sometimes you just gotta admit that you were wrong.

First of all, I was wrong to doubt the Jets before the season. In fact, after Sunday's 38-14 shellacking of Buffalo (admittedly not the greatest opponent, but one which at least played New England and Miami relatively close), I'm beginning to think New York is at worst the 2nd-best team in the NFL -- perhaps even the best if Ben Roethlisberger shows rust upon his return to Pittsburgh's lineup. Here are our Simple Ratings through week 4 (adjusted for a home-field advantage of 2.5 points, and obviously excluding Pats-Fins):

Rank Team Games Rating Rank Team Games Rating
1 PIT 4 13.72 17 HTX 4 -0.13
2 NYJ 4 12.60 18 CHI 4 -0.65
3 RAV 4 10.64 19 MIN 3 -1.07
4 KAN 3 9.45 20 SEA 4 -1.13
5 SDG 4 7.29 21 WAS 4 -1.21
6 OTI 4 5.85 22 RAM 4 -1.50
7 GNB 4 5.27 23 TAM 3 -2.61
8 ATL 4 4.99 24 DET 4 -3.29
9 CLT 4 4.27 25 NOR 4 -4.02
10 NWE 3 3.44 26 NYG 4 -6.08
11 CLE 4 2.75 27 JAX 4 -7.57
12 CIN 4 2.51 28 SFO 4 -9.18
13 PHI 4 2.30 29 RAI 4 -10.09
14 MIA 3 1.58 30 BUF 4 -10.28
15 DEN 4 0.85 31 CAR 4 -12.80
16 DAL 3 0.50 32 CRD 4 -13.58

In a year where it's looking like parity rules, the Jets are one of only a handful of teams that have separated themselves from the pack at all.

But the main purpose of this post isn't so much a mea culpa about the Jets in general, but rather one about a specific New York player... Back in April, I scoffed at NY's acquisition of LaDainian Tomlinson, calling him (among other things) "toast" and "completely washed up". I cited the fact that when a running back over age 30 posts a sub-3.5 YPC average, it almost universally means he's finished as a productive NFL player; in fact, among the 11 backs who had worse age-29 + 30 YPC averages than LDT did in 2008-09, all but Bill Brown & Dorsey Levens were totally out of the league by age 32. Simply put, 31-year-old RBs who play as badly as Tomlinson did in 2009 don't tend to play pro football much longer, much less contribute high YPC averages again.

Until now, that is. Through Sunday's game against the Bills (when he tore off 133 yards on 19 carries), LDT is averaging 6.09 YPC, the highest mark of his career and the first time he's been above 5.00 since his record-breaking 2006 season. Granted, this production has come against 4 teams (Baltimore, New England, Miami, Buffalo) who are all currently allowing more YPC than the league average, but it's still a fairly unprecedented pace for a back who seemed, well, "toast" over the past two seasons.

To take a closer look at just how improbable Tomlinson's bounce-back has been, I adapted Doug's Advanced Passing metrics to create a rushing Yards Per Carry Index (YPCI). Here were Tomlinson's career numbers heading into 2010 (remember, an Index of 100 = average, >100 = above-avg., and <100 = below-avg):

Year Age Tm Pos tmG G Car Yds TD YPC 3yLgAvg YPCI
2001 22 sdg RB 16 16 339 1236 10 3.65 4.12 89
2002 23 sdg RB 16 16 372 1683 14 4.52 4.15 108
2003 24 sdg RB 16 16 313 1645 13 5.26 4.17 124
2004 25 sdg RB 16 15 339 1335 17 3.94 4.10 96
2005 26 sdg RB 16 16 339 1462 18 4.31 4.10 104
2006 27 sdg RB 16 16 348 1815 28 5.22 4.07 124
2007 28 sdg RB 16 16 315 1474 15 4.68 4.14 112
2008 29 sdg RB 16 16 292 1110 11 3.80 4.17 92
2009 30 sdg RB 16 14 223 730 12 3.27 4.21 82

(For a full list of post-merger YPCI performances, click here.)

Since the merger, here are the running backs who posted back-to-back sub-95 YPCI seasons starting at age 29 or later, as well as how they performed in subsequent seasons:

Player Year1 Age YPCI Year2 Age YPCI Year3 Year4 Year5
Shaun Alexander 2006 29 89 2007 30 85
Ottis Anderson 1989 32 81 1990 33 89
Pete Banaszak 1975 31 90 1976 32 81
Jerome Bettis 2002 30 87 2003 31 81 92 85
Roger Craig 1990 30 81 1991 31 92 100
Larry Csonka 1976 30 89 1977 31 87 95
Eddie George 2002 29 83 2003 30 81 81
Edgerrin James 2007 29 92 2008 30 93
Leroy Kelly 1971 29 93 1972 30 90 76
MacArthur Lane 1973 31 79 1974 32 69 83
Jamal Lewis 2008 29 87 2009 30 87
Floyd Little 1973 31 95 1974 32 70 89
Kevin Mack 1991 29 93 1992 30 81
Robert Newhouse 1979 29 91 1980 30 95
Jim Otis 1977 29 84 1978 30 85
Mike Pruitt 1984 30 74 1985 31 86 78
John Riggins 1981 32 92 1982 33 76 89 92 96
Antowain Smith 2002 30 94 2003 31 86 91 97
Emmitt Smith 2001 32 95 2002 33 93 86
Lamar Smith 2000 30 92 2001 31 77 86
LaDainian Tomlinson 2008 29 92 2009 30 82 131
Sammy Winder 1988 29 91 1989 30 82
Barry Word 1992 29 94 1993 30 83

Only Roger Craig managed to even be average after two seasons like Tomlinson's; 13 of these 23 backs were out of the league immediately after their back-to-back debacles, 6 dropped out 1 year later, and all but Riggins were gone within 2 years. In other words, it's basically unheard of that Tomlinson would be this good again after his '08 & '09 seasons.

Of course, there is the small matter of whether he can keep playing this well as the season progresses. For starters, it's unrealistic to expect him to stay at a 131 YPCI when his career-high in his prime was only 124, and historically he has a tendency to decline in October and November, even in his younger days (before surging in December). Plus, as I mentioned above, he hasn't exactly run through a gauntlet of YPC-suppressing defenses yet. With 3/4 of the season remaining, there are a lot of factors that can conspire against any running back, especially one with as many miles on his odometer as LDT.

Yet, even if he slips to mere "above-average" levels of production, it would still represent the first time in modern NFL history that a running back played so poorly in back-to-back seasons after the age of 29 and was anything other than mediocre/out of football in a subsequent season. My prediction may have had history on its side, but Tomlinson could very well send history to the turf with a well-timed stiff-arm this season.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 4th, 2010 at 4:57 am and is filed under Rant, Running Backs, Simple Rating System, Statgeekery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.