By Clint Muhe
<img width="218" height="219" align="left" alt="LaDainian Tomlinson" title="LaDainian Tomlinson" src="http://www.nctimes.com/content/articles/2005/11/06/sports/professional/chargers/21_15_5910_27_05.jpg" />As quickly as LaDainian Tomlinson was hoisted up by many as the best "back" in the league, it appears he may have been forgotten in equal haste. Though, in his young career, L.T. has produced all around numbers never before seen, it appears that until he clinches a rushing title, or surpasses 2,000 yards in a single season, he will always have his doubters. In five years Tomlinson has broken essentially every career rushing record the Chargers had, and yet many people seem to believe he's nearing decline or has already begun to weaken. His most vocal critics are quick to site his high carries per season as the primary reason for their doubts. What ought to be mentioned along side his carry totals are his amazing work ethic and phenomenal off-season training regimen that he has molded specifically to prevent injury and lengthen his career.
Additionally, L.T. has accomplished in five years what most players' dream of accomplishing in a career, and he has done so while toiling behind a mediocre offensive-line as well as having the opposing team game plan against him almost exclusively. Few backs in the league could succeed behind such difficult circumstances. Tomlinson has not only succeeded but indeed flourished. Despite L.T.'s phenomenal success Larry Johnson is now considered by many to be the best back entering next season; how can this be? As we near the much anticipated NFL season many football fanatics are preparing for their fantasy drafts. A running back is the most important and sometimes elusive selection you can make; this year's running back elite will not make deciding any easier.
Larry Johnson, of the Kansas City Chiefs, is being touted as the #1 Fantasy Football prospect this off-season. Who could blame them? What he accomplished last season, while starting less than ten games, is truly amazing; even more amazing though was their offensive line and full-back. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to strip L.J. of any accolades, but if L.T. were to get an offensive line of that caliber for one full season we might be talking about Eric Dickerson's 2,105 yards like it were ancient history.
Many commentators, including Sean Salisbury or ESPN, are already proclaiming Johnson as the league MVP. Many are going so far as to give him the all time rushing mark as well. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves perhaps we should consider why Johnson was so successful last year.
It has long been my opinion that K.C. has the best offensive line in the league (Denver being probably the best competition for that title). However, all good things must come to an end. The average age of the starting offensive linemen for the Chiefs is an astounding 34-years-old. It's been a miracle that K.C. has not suffered more injuries to their line in the past few years than they have, and the future may not bode as well. Tony Richardson, a top 3 full back, was quietly lost to the Minnesota Vikings this past off-season as well. Additionally, L.J. was lucky enough to come in with a full head of steam midway through the season while facing many bruised and battered defenses. L.J.'s running style may not support the full length of a NFL season. He is a bruising back, but come next year when every team is gunning for him, he may be the one getting bruised.
The Chargers' jettisoned offensive line coach Carl Mauck in order to bring in what will hopefully be the Chargers' savior, John "Jack" Henry. Mauck certainly was not all to blame though. Only one offensive lineman, right guard Mike Goff, played all 16 games. Nevertheless, if the Chargers can improve their offensive line, and stay healthy, the sky will truly be the limit for not only Tomlinson, but the team as well.
The most common factors applied to measuring a NFL running back's career longevity are injury and elusiveness. L.T. is probably the most elusive back to play since Barry Sanders and he has been blessed with a relatively minimal amount of injuries, or at least large career-threatening injuries. Johnson's ability to take a full seasons pounding is yet to be proven.
L.T.'s idol growing up and mentor at the start of his career was Emmitt Smith, who holds the record for most yards gained in a career for a running back. In fact, L.T. modeled his whole training schedule and healing tactics around the tips he received from his former idol turned peer. If Emmitt Smith's teachings work for L.T. as well as they did for Emmitt, we could be witnessing a successor to the NFL's running back throne.
The NFL is entering into a whole new era and the medical breakthroughs in surgery are largely responsible for these changes. At 31-years-old Curtis Martin impressively snagged the NFL rushing title. Emmitt Smith and Tiki Barber both have thrived well past the age of 30 and it would not be surprising to see many of the young stars today, including L.T., continue to advance this trend.
Tomlinson may have slipped under the radar a bit, but he's certainly not out of the picture altogether. For all you Fantasy Football aficionados out there, here is a little tip: Don't worry too much if you get the 2nd or 3rd overall pick. If you're in a league where the sheep listen to the "experts" instead of common sense, then you'll be in perfect position to snag the steal of a lifetime. Shaun Alexander and L.J. may be ranked higher come draft day, but come the end of 06' L.T. will be where he always is, at the top of his game. The most under-rated stat for a Fantasy player is consistency and L.T. holds that stat proudly.