02 Dec 2008
by Ned Macey
As mentioned in the linked article, LaDainian Tomlinson is having the worst year of his career. As I said in Audibles, I think it is fair to ask if this is the beginning of the end. To help answer that question, I had Aaron put together the list of most similar players to Tomlinson based on similarity scores, prorating Tomlinson's season for 16 games.
The only player even remotely comparable over a three-year period is Emmitt Smith from 1995-1997. Smith was never again a dominant player, but he did have three more very good seasons before slowly declining and somehow ending up with the Arizona Cardinals. Smith, however, did not have the massive drop in yards per attempt that Tomlinson has exhibited in his third year. The decline of Smith in 1997 was in large part merely fewer carries due to an inferior team.
The list of players most similar to Tomlinson over a two-year period is an interesting mix. It indicates that while Tomlinson may no longer be the league's best runner, he could have a number of good years in front of him. Only one player's similar season, Roger Craig in 1989, signaled the end of his status as a quality starting back.
For a few players, the one-season decline was not a sign the player was completely finished but hinted that the end was near. Tony Dorsett bounced back with one more great year. Edgerrin James matched his 2006 performance last season but has now been benched. Ricky Watters only had one productive year after his 1999 season.
A handful of players, however, had years of productivity left. Curtis Martin had two more big seasons after his disappointing 2002 campaign. Ricky Waters had three quality seasons after his 1997 campaign. Walter Payton's poor 1980 season reads historically like a mid-career fluke. Herschel Walker never matched the heights of his 1988 but played effectively for four years after his trade-interrupted 1989.
Earnest Byner is not really comparable, with only three 1,000-yard seasons in his career. Billy Sims, meanwhile, had major injuries throughout his short career but was effective when healthy after averaging only 3.7 yards per carry in 1982.
Given Tomlinson's nagging toe injury and the poor defense that forces San Diego to abandon the run, my secret suspicion is that he will bounce back to a 1,300-yard, 4.2 yards per carry back next season. That may not be MVP caliber, but the Chargers will take it. Whether he is able to do this for more than a couple more years remains in doubt, but a Shaun Alexander-like decline seems unlikely.
10 comments, Last at 04 Dec 2008, 12:38pm by A Whore