ORLANDO, Fla. -- Almost everyone tells me this year's New York Jets will be better than last year's New York Jets, only this year's New York Jets don't have Thomas Jones. They have LaDainian Tomlinson. And from where I sit that doesn't make the league's top-rated rushing attack better.
It makes it worse.
|LaDainian Tomlinson's move to the Jets mirrors the career finishes of other great backs playing out the string. (AP)|
Sorry, but that doesn't qualify as an upgrade.
It would if this were the old L.T. But it's not. It's Eddie George with Dallas. It's Emmitt Smith with Arizona. It's Edgerrin James with Arizona and Eric Dickerson with the Raiders. In short, LaDainian Tomlinson is not the back he once was -- nor the back that Thomas Jones is -- and that doesn't make the New York Jets more imposing. It makes them a team that almost surely will have to rely more on Mark Sanchez's arm and less on two running backs.
That isn't coach Rex Ryan's wish, nor is it his style. But he might not have a choice if ... when ... Tomlinson fails to exceed last year's performance. All I know is that before San Diego's playoff game with the Jets, Chargers coach Norv Turner underscored the urgency of running the ball. Then he called on Tomlinson, and L.T. responded with 24 yards -- with no carry longer than 5 yards and five carries of no more than 1.
"He's still a guy who can do it all," Ryan said of Tomlinson. "He can run the ball inside or outside. He's outstanding in pass protection. And he's a great pass receiver out of the backfield, as well. We brought him in here to contribute."
That's great, except if Tomlinson had anything left he would be contributing for the Chargers. But over the past year and a half, his play declined so dramatically that it surprised no one -- including Tomlinson -- when San Diego released one of the greatest players in its history.
The numbers explain why: For the first seven years of his career he averaged 338 carries a season, or more carries than Hall of Fame back Earl Campbell had in his career, and 4.5 yards per attempt. But in the past two seasons he dropped to an average of 257.5 carries and 3.57 yards per try -- including a career-worst 3.3 in 2009.
Do the math. This is a descending back who is at or near the end of the line, and I became convinced not in the Chargers' playoff loss to New York but in their regular-season defeat of Kansas City nearly three months earlier. On one series the Bolts gave the ball to Tomlinson three times at or inside the Chiefs 2, and he not only didn't score; he lost a yard against the league's 31st-ranked run defense.
|L.T. vs. T.J.: 2008-09|
|2009 rushing leaders|
Three years ago, that wouldn't have happened. Then again, three years ago the Jets couldn't have gotten their hands on LaDainian Tomlinson. Nobody could. In fact, nobody did.
That should tell you what L.T. has left.
Now look at what Jones did for the Jets last season. He carried 331 times. He gained 1,402 yards. He scored 14 times. More important, he hasn't missed a game in four seasons, has averaged 1,276 yards over the past five and is coming off the best season of his career. LaDainian Tomlinson is coming off his worst, so someone please tell me how trading L.T. for Thomas Jones makes the New York Jets better.
Ryan doesn't agree, and I wouldn't expect him to. He coaches the guy. He pushed to add him. And he steadfastly believes in him, which is terrific. Maybe Tomlinson becomes the back Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum think he'll be, and, for their sakes, I hope so. But I just don't see it, even when Ryan keeps reminding critics that Tomlinson is better than the guy who five times last season ran for 50 or fewer yards and who fizzled in the playoffs.
Who will have a better season in 2010?
LaDainian Tomlinson with the Jets
Thomas Jones with the Chiefs
Total Votes: 16,068
"I had to get ready for him [in the playoffs]," Ryan said, "and we had to defend him in a certain way. We had to make sure we had eight guys down there. We had to put one-and-a-half on him in the passing game, so I know he can still do it.
"The great thing is that he's one of the most competitive guys in the history of this game. I'm excited. It's funny, but if LaDainian is our weakness then we must have a heckuva football team."
It's unclear how the Jets will use Tomlinson because they have a running back who is younger and more productive in Shonn Greene, and they have a running back who is younger and more explosive in the pass attack in Leon Washington. I don't know where that leaves L.T., but Ryan said he can envision him carrying 15 times a game -- six fewer than Jones last season.
"We're just going to ground and pound away," he said. "I look at it this way: Shonn is the starting back for us, so is L.T. and so is Leon. If [Washington] is healthy he's our starting third-down back. We brought in L.T. to be a major contributor for us, and I think Shonn Greene is a star in the making.
"I hope we have that opportunity to have that three-headed monster that we talked about last year. When you can combine what Shonn Greene and LaDainian and Leon would do for you I'd think we'd have the best backfield in the league."
Maybe. But my guess is they won't.