San Diego Chargers' Struggles Connected to the Fall of LaDainian Tomlinson

Steve PContributor IIOctober 17, 2009

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  LaDainian Tomlinson #21 of the San Diego Chargers is tackled by Tyvon Branch #33 of the Oakland Raiders during their game on September 14, 2009 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The San Diego Chargers are once again struggling at the beginning of this season, just as they did last year.  Injuries, certainly are part of it.  But there's an even bigger reason.

I'd never argue that losing Pro Bowl NT Jamal Williams doesn't help.  Guys of his size and ability are few and far between, and you're not going to find street free agents to fill that gap. 

Ask the Carolina Panthers if you have doubts.  And Shawne Merriman's groin injury, combined with questions about him being less explosive since his knee injury no doubt have a huge impact on the defensive struggles the Chargers are having.

Offensively, with Center Nick Hardwick out until at least December, and possibly for the year, combined with the right side of the offensive line being a huge question mark coming into the season, it's easy to see why Philip Rivers has been under duress and seen his numbers decline some from his Pro Bowl season of a year ago. 

But that isn't the real story.

The real story is that LaDainian Tomlinson's time as a legitimate bell cow running back has ended.  With that ending, the team simply lacks a guy they can hand the ball off to on a consistent basis and depend upon him to get the crucial yards needed, and to keep defenses honest against Rivers and the passing game. 

For some numerical proof, I'll provide what I think is a good comparison.

Recall the way the career of Eddie George came to an end.  He seemed to be the same guy, then, all of a sudden, the wheels fell off.  Numbers prove that George was in fact declining his last four years in the league before the dramatic end in his final year.  I'll show we are seeing the same thing with LT.

The barometer I'm going to use is yards per carry.  Let's look at 1999, George's last year with a yards per carry average of over four yards:

  G  GS  Att   Yds   Avg  Lng  TD   Rec  Yds   Avg   Lng  TD   Fum   Lost

 16  16  320  1304  4.1   40    9     47   458   9.7    54    4     5       4


Not a bad year.  Now, let's look at the years 2000-2003, beginning with 2000, in chronological order:

  G  GS  Att   Yds   Avg  Lng  TD   Rec  Yds   Avg   Lng   TD  Fum   Lost

 16  16  403  1509  3.7   35   14    50   453   9.1    24     2    5       3

 16  16  315   939   3.0   27    5    37   279   7.5    25     0    8       6

 16  16  343  1165  3.4   35   12    36   255   7.1    14     2    1       1

 16  16  312  1031  3.3   27    5    22   163   7.4    22     0    1       0


These marked George's last four years with Tennessee.  Note that in 2000, while his actual amount of yards increased, he needed 83 more carries to do so.  This marked the point of diminishing returns for George, as his yards per carry average never again reached four yards. 

While it is true that his average did increase very slightly in 2002, it declined yet again the next season.  But even both of these years he averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry.


This is his final year, 2004, in Dallas:

  G  GS  Att   Yds   Avg  Lng  TD   Rec  Yds   Avg   Lng   TD  Fum   Lost

 13   8  132   432   3.3   24    4      9     83    9.2   28     0    3        1


Here, we clearly see the accumulated punishment has taken it's toll.  He was no longer able to play the whole season, in fact only starting half of the schedule. 

Now, let's take a look at Tomlinson.  Admittedly, I am using less of a sample with him, but I believe that my point will be proven by looking at his yards per carry average.  I'm going to begin with his MVP season of 2006, and will end with his production from this season:

  G  GS  Att   Yds   Avg  Lng  TD   Rec  Yds   Avg   Lng   TD  Fum   Lost

 16 16   348  1815  5.2   85   28    56   508    9.1   51     3     2       1

 16 16   315  1474  4.7   49   15    60   475    7.9   36     3     0       0

 16 16   292  1110  3.8   45   11    52   426    8.2   32     1     1       0

  2   2     20    70   3.5   13    1      2      0    0.0     1     0     1       1


I realize that including this year provides an incomplete picture.  San Diego has 12 games left, and it is possible LT could turn things around and revert to being the productive back we've all come to know. 

The numbers however, make that appear unlikely.  No back is going to be equally as productive the year following one such as 2006.  Years like that are called "career seasons" for a reason. 

But examine his yards per carry averages for a moment.  He lost exactly a half a yard off his average in 2007, then almost a full yard in 2008.  The decline has continued thus far into this season.  Even his average per reception, which is part of the skill set Tomlinson has long been noted for, has dropped off almost a full yard. 

Finally, if you add in the fact that Tomlinson has failed to be able to finish the last two years due to injury, and now has missed time hurt this season already, I think we can conclude we are seeing the last days of a future Hall of Famer. 

What San Diego does to replace him going forward will certainly dictate what success they have in the future.  But Darren Sproles is not an every down back, and the Chargers have shown by his lack of use how little faith they have in Michael Bennett.

The supreme irony in this is that two offseasons ago, the Chargers were faced with holding on to LT or Michael Turner.  One has to wonder if A.J. Smith had a crystal ball, would he have done things differently?  My guess is he would have, but of course, we will never know.