Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

02 Dec 2008

Any Given Sunday: Falcons over Chargers

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.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 02 Dec 2008

10 comments, Last at 04 Dec 2008, 12:38pm by A Whore


by Danish Denver-Fan :: Tue, 12/02/2008 - 6:33pm

So the Falcons' win over a 4-7 team is "any given sunday"?

I was hoping for the Broncos here, maybe thats why I'm cranky...

by tally :: Tue, 12/02/2008 - 10:05pm

Second sentence in the article notes that even Vegas considered SD the favorite.

by dancingeek@gmail.com :: Tue, 12/02/2008 - 6:39pm

"During training camp, pass-rusher extraordinaire Shawne Merriman tore knee ligaments."

Actually, Merriman was injured during the playoff game against Tennessee at the end of last season.

"The Falcons' defensive line contained the Chargers' rushing attack and took advantage of reserve left guard Scott Mruczkowski."

They also took advantage of backup fullback Jacob Hester. Hester routinely missed blocks which left LT exposed in the backfield.

One of the funny things about this game is that LT was running the hardest I've seen him run all season, and he still came up short.

by funtime42 (not verified) :: Tue, 12/02/2008 - 9:33pm

Winning the MVP award is not a good thing for a running back, is it? I'm severely mathematically challenged (dyslexia is just not compatible with this stuff), but looking over the numbers for the last few running backs who have won - Barry Sanders '97, Terrell Davis '98,Marshall Faulk '00, Jamal Lewis 2003 (PFWA), and now LaDamien Tomlinson, it looks a bit like the Kiss of Death for a number of them.

No real tail off for Faulk, and Sanders retired, but I would be curious to see a pre- vs. post- MVP DVOA, either team or individual.

by tally :: Tue, 12/02/2008 - 10:03pm

I'm guessing not all MVP RBs are created equal. It may not be the MVP so much as the carries needed to get that MVP award. The decline can probably be split between the curse of 370 (or the curse of a lot of carries over a few years) and simple regression to the mean, either for the back or for the offense around him in general.

by ygold (not verified) :: Wed, 12/03/2008 - 1:35am

I wonder for these RBs whether the dropoff in production for a single year was due to a chronic injury that hampered their ability but not badly enough to keep them off the field. Granted as players get older they have a more difficult time coming back from injuries, and the chronic wear and tear breaks them down. LT and Westbrook come to mind as players who have dipped in their ypc this year, but if healthy should bounce back next year.

by Omroth-UK (not verified) :: Wed, 12/03/2008 - 7:06am

"With their 8-4 record, [the Falcons] would hold the final playoff spot if the season were to end today."

I think this is incorrect - Dallas win in the Conference Record tie braker don't they?

by ammek :: Wed, 12/03/2008 - 7:59am

Nope. Falcons 5-3 (.625) vs Cowboys 6-4 (.600). And you can add another win for Atlanta: week 17 home vs the Rams.

by The Ninjalectual :: Thu, 12/04/2008 - 12:21am

Great article! Thanks, Ned!

by A Whore (not verified) :: Thu, 12/04/2008 - 12:38pm

It's fine to say Ryan's having a great rookie season, but I don't see it as necessary to trash Ben's rookie year to do it.

Going into full homer mode, Ben's passing as a rookie was almost entirely limited to obvious passing situations, trailing in the 4th, and 3rd and not short. And he put up great numbers, with a handful of 4th-quarter comebacks through the air.

Ryan has a lot more attempts because he throws a lot in viable rushing situations. Obviously he's thrown in passing situations as well, but he's been bad. He's 24th at picking up 3rd-and-medium, barely edging out Fitzpatrick, and his QB rating is 35 points higher with a lead than trailing (105 to 70), and is even worse trailing close (about 50).

Ryan does an excellent job of making defenses pay for playing the run. Kudos. And given the difference in sacks, I'm sure the Falcon passing game has been more effective on a per pass basis.

But I just don't like the argument that "moving the ball through the air when the defense expects pass is 'game managing', where moving the ball through the air when the defense expects run is MVP worthy."

Don't like it, not one bit.