As the Chargers bask in the glow of their unlikely playoffs run, a very difficult off season looms for the Chargers. While the Chargers don't face off season decisions like the Baltimore Ravens face having to decide which of their starting three linebackers to sign, they do face the decision the tough decision of deciding how much longer they have to put their running game in the hands of Ladainian Tomlinson, their record setting all-pro running back.
While his numbers have steadily dropped off over the past three seasons, his lack of production in the playoffs has been the most disturbing part of his decline. In the 2006 loss to the New England Patriots, Tomlinson rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns in addition to 64 yards receiving. Since that game, the Chargers have played in three playoff games.
Tomlinson's combined stats from those three games are 95 yards and two touchdowns.
Complicating the situation is the fact that Darren Sproles, Tomlinson's back up is an unrestricted free agent that will be heavily sought after based on his recent play. The decision becomes complex based on a number of difficult decisions. First, do the Chargers feel that Sproles can be an every down back? Sproles has done it in the past. In his four years while playing for Kansas State, he carried the ball over 200 times three times including 306 carries as a junior.
While this question may be relatively easy the answer, the more difficult question to answer is how much emphasis will the Chargers put on the run in the future. With the emergence of Philip Rivers as a one of the best quarterbacks and Norv Turner's generally pass happy offense, do the Chargers need a top notch running back?
For the 2007-2008 season, the Chargers were ranked seventh in the run and 26th in the pass. This season, they ranked 20th in the run and seventh in the past.
One thing going for the Chargers is that if they decide to let Sproles walk as they did with Michael Turner after the 2007-2008 season, there are some decent free agent running backs such a Dominic Rhodes, Correll Buckhalter and Rudi Johnson. If Sproles does leave, the Chargers will have to address this need.
Outside of Sproles and Tomlinson, there is not much. Michael Bennett is a serviceable back and Jacob Hester has a pleasant surprise as a rookie but is much more effective as a fullback than as an every down back.
Historically, parting ways with superstars the caliper of Tomlinson has been difficult. The saga that the whole sports world watched regarding the Packers and Brett Favre demonstrate that these situations can be PR nightmares. And like the Packer's ordeal, being in a small market makes it even more difficult. With the Padres having no really marketable super stars, Tomlinson becomes an even bigger superstar.
On the flip side, holding onto Tomlinson could be disastrous. As much as fans fall in love with their sports heroes, management is faced with making decisions that will affect their franchises for years to come. The Packers provides more comparisons. Now that the Jets off season has started, the Brett Favre retirement watch has started again.
Sports talk show hosts across the country are burning up the air waves with "Will Brett retire?" talk again. Every football "expert" has an opinion. Criticize the Packers all you want, at least Favre isn't there head ache this year.
Though Tomlinson is a different situation because he plays a position where you can platoon unlike quarterback, the Chargers can not pretend anymore that Tomlinson is going to be their every down back. The biggest factor in this whole situation will be Tomlinson himself. It will come down to Tomlinson's willingness to accept a different role on the team.
With the Chargers' offense being more pass oriented, this change has already started on its own. If Tomlinson is willing to adjust to a new role, this transition will be made easier. If he isn't the Chargers are going to face a PR nightmare similar to what the Packers ran into last off season.
The REAL good news for the Chargers is that at least for the next few days, the Chargers have bigger concerns such as Big Ben and the Steelers. And hopefully for all of the Chargers hopeful, after Sunday the Chargers will have another opponent to stay the decision. But regardless of the outcome of Sunday's game, this decision will have to be made at some point. Hopefully they make the right one.