Sometimes I wonder if LT feels like the whole world is disappointed with him for not having amassed 800 yards rushing and 15+ TDs at this point in the season.
I also wonder what he thinks about every other article written about the San Diego Chargers making reference to him going through the inevitable decline due to his age. Not knowing him personally, I can't honestly say what he must be thinking and feeling, but I can say that I think he's getting a bum wrap.
Having followed the Chargers closely for the last ten years, I can see that there has been a big change in how LT has been used in the offensive scheme. Several factors beyond LT's control and most unrelated to his age have contributed to his changed role in San Diego's offense and the resulting decline in performance the last two years. Let's take a look at a few of these factors.
Improved Offensive Personnel
When LT was first drafted, the biggest name on the Charger's offense was Doug Flutie. While a competent NFL quarterback, Flutie was at the tail end of his career and did not have a high caliber cast at the skilled positions with which to work. Much to LT's benefit, he was expected to shoulder a large burden in powering the offense and, much to his credit, he stepped up and showed us what a special player he was.
In the last nine years, the Chargers have added players who have vastly upgraded the level of ability at the skilled positions. First off, Antonio Gates exploded onto the scene and brought another potent dimension to the Chargers offense.
After taking over for Brees, Philip Rivers has proven, from his very first game, that he has what it takes to run an NFL offense with the best of them. Add to that the development of Vincent Jackson into a top flight receiver, the explosive potential of Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee, and not to mention the Meggett-like Darren Sproles, and the Chargers now have offensive potential unseen since the days of Fouts, Winslow, Joiner, and Muncie.
The addition of these players has immensely changed the balance of power and the balance of opportunities on the Chargers offense. The commitment the Chargers made by franchise tagging Darren Sproles has especially changed how many looks LT is likely to get. The resulting decline in opportunities to get his hands on the rock and get his rhythm going this year has unmistakably resulted in a decline on the stat sheets.
Change in Offensive Philosophy
With Cam Cameron's leaving to Miami and the abrupt dismissal of Marty Schottenheimer, after a 14-2 season no less, Norv Turner arrived in San Diego to take over the head coaching chores. Norv brought with him his own simplified brand of west coast offense that has often been criticized for being too predictable.
What Norv didn't bring with him was an O line the caliber of the one he had in front of Emmitt Smith in Dallas.
With an offensive scheme that uses compacted formations to draw secondary defenders in against the run and then use play action to push for down field opportunities, you need a powerful run blocking line and a top notch fullback and, right now, the Chargers have neither.
What we have seen, more and more over the last three seasons, are eight defenders in the box against offensive formations that telegraph the Charger's intentions to run.
Another knock on the Chargers current offensive scheme is the lack of an effective short passing game. This has affected LT in two ways, the first of which is the reduced opportunities he has seen this year on the receiving end of things.
For a guy who has posted both 79 and 100 reception seasons as well as averaging over 60 grabs a year over his first eight seasons, his meager nine receptions this season are mind boggling.
Some of those looks are going to Sproles, obviously, but the lack of pass plays to LT has made it easy for defenses to key on the run when he's in the game and conversely to key on the pass when Sproles is in. It also takes away opportunities for LT to work in space which has always been one of the most beautiful, yes I said beautiful, things to watch.
The second way LT is affected is, as mentioned before, the increased amount of defenders that are showing up in the box. The small amount of plays run from spread formations and the lack of short, timed routes, swing passes, and backs hitting the flats has allowed opposing defenses to stack up players in the box making it tough on San Diego's beleaguered line to open up holes for LT.
Injuries and Offensive Line Struggles
You'll have a hard time convincing me that the single biggest problem with the run game in San Diego this year isn't injuries. LT hasn't been at 100 percent obviously, but losing their best lineman, center Nick Hardwick, in game one was devastating to the line.
In the following several games they were nothing short of porous as they gave up sack after sack and were completely ineffective at driving anyone off the line. LT was hit so many times in the backfield, after missed blocks, it was ridiculous. Not only that, but when he wasn't hit in the backfield, there was no where to run up field.
Although I wouldn't say that the Chargers have ever had a dominating line during LT's tenure, I would say that the run blocking has been much better in previous years. Other than the injuries and some new faces, I can't really say what's missing, but something is.
Maybe it is simply adjusting to new players and gelling together that is the issue. The Philadelphia game was the first time this season that the line could consistently drive defenders off the line and pick up all their blocking assignments and it showed in LT's stats.
So are we expecting too much of LT?
My answer is yes. First and foremost, if LT's only going to get half the touches he's had in the past (counting both run attempts and receptions) then we can't expect the same amount of offensive output.
I would love to see him continue his streak of 1,000 yard rushing seasons, but that won't happen unless he gets more quality opportunities to run the ball (not just first down opportunities running out of I formation with eight defenders in the box).
It also won't happen unless the offensive line continues to stay healthy and improve. If they do open up the holes, he'll exploit them (he proved that against a tough Eagles defense).
Even if there are continued problems with the line, there are still other options to mount an effective run game. Run more spread formations and pull defenders out of the box. Create opportunities to run against six in the box and burn the defense with short pass completions to the flats and swing routes if they continue to load up against the run. The tools are there to run a wide open offense and launch a blitzkrieg against opposing teams.
LT still has the capability to be one of the most effective backs in the league and continue to amass rushing yards and touchdowns if used wisely. I would love to look back, in five or six years, and see that the addition of Sproles served to distribute the load and lengthen the effective career of one of the greatest backs to ever lace 'em up.