1,858 yards on a team with a first-year starting quarterback, a rookie left tackle, an almost completely anonymous crew of receivers (their stellar tight end notwithstanding), and the knowledge that every team he faces has one mission in mind: Stop L.T.
Oh, yeah – he’s also his team’s third-leading receiver. If he adds 320 yards from scrimmage to his current 2,110, he’ll set the single-season record in that department, as well. He’s scored 20 touchdowns through the ground and the air since the beginning of November alone, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can stop him.
In 2006, the attempt to curtail the production of LaDanian Tomlinson, San Diego’s real Super Charger, has been laughable at best and humiliating at worst, especially down the season’s stretch. After missing the 100-yard mark in five of the first six games, Tomlinson has rushed for at least for over 100 in eight straight contests. And with Seattle’s run defense sitting at 22nd in the NFL, allowing an average of 125.1 yards per game, that streak looks to continue unabated.
If that happens, Tomlinson will tie Walter Payton with the third most consecutive 100-yard rushing games in NFL history. Barry Sanders holds the record with 14, and that goal doesn’t seem out of the question for Tomlinson right now.
Frankly, nothing does.
Since 2001, his versatility has been astonishing. In addition to his 8,987 rushing yards in not even six full seasons, Tomlinson has averaged 66 receptions for 479 yards per year. In 2003, he caught 100 balls AND rushed for over 1,600 yards. His six career passing touchdowns are tied for second all-time for non-quarterbacks behind Payton’s eight. He’s the best player in the league, and like Seattle’s Shaun Alexander, the man whose touchdown record of 28 he has shattered, he’s toiled on the wrong coast on an “unsexy” team. Only recently has he truly received his due as a player, at least in the public eye.
Asking opposing players about Tomlinson, however, will bring about more positive and definitive responses. To Seahawks linebacker Julian Peterson, who will be charged with the unenviable task of stopping this force of nature on Sunday afternoon at Qwest Field, the excellence is no secret and no mystery. “He is a tremendous back; he can do pretty much everything,” Peterson said on Wednesday. “If we can slow him down and get the ball out of his hands and make sure he doesn’t have a big impact on the game, it can give our defense a big boost and continue hopefully in the postseason.”
What, in Peterson’s mind, makes Tomlinson so special? “He does everything. He can be a quarterback, running back, receiver... If you can get the ball out of his hands and keep him to a minimum then I think their offense will struggle tremendously.”
Another point that Peterson brought up was Tomlinson’s ability to turn even the smallest hole in the offensive line into a productive play. There is a precedent, and it isn’t a good one for Seattle’s defense. “Our biggest thing is that we can look at film from watching (San Francisco’s) Frank Gore. To me, similar styles, because Frank can do the same thing, get up in those little holes and somehow get out. So, we just have to watch them and see what we did wrong with Frank at times when he came into those little small holes and he was bouncing out. Watch what we did then and improve from that.”
San Francisco swept the 2006 season series with the Seahawks, and Gore gained 356 yards on the ground in two games. Allowing a similar result from Tomlinson means certain death for the Seahawks defense.
Second-year middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu must tailor his view to the side-to-side, but it all starts in the middle, and that’s where Seattle has been gashed in 2006. According to Football Outsiders’ proprietary statistics, the Seahawks are allowing 4.23 yards per attempt up the middle, after giving up 3.64 yards per attempt up the gut in 2005. The challenges have not been met by the Seattle interior defensive unit, but Tatupu says that the prospect of facing the best back around will raise his game.
“Definitely,” Tatupu said. That’s like for players who play against Michael Jordan in basketball, they want to make sure they stop Michael Jordan or score more than him.
“When you’re playing against a back of his caliber, you have to make sure that Shaun (Alexander) has a better day than LaDainian. So, our biggest thing is to make sure he doesn’t get over a hundred yards, or if we can keep him to 50 that would be great for us, or 45 – that would be great.”
Actually, that would be miraculous. The Seahawks, after refusing to allow a 100-yard rusher through their first five games, have given up the century mark in six of the following nine, and four of the last five. It’s a defense that has been run down due to a lack of drive stability on the offensive side. It’s a defense that’s small up the middle. It’s a defense that plays right into into Tomlinson’s hands.
“You have to put those (prior games) behind you,” Tatupu said. “They’re all different types of backs. LT, he’s a rare breed. He does it all well. He can catch out of the backfield and run the ball effectively. So, we have to bring our best game and play good.”
Can he be stopped? “I don’t know if anybody has ever really stopped him,”: Tatupu continued. “Just like they say, you have to contain him. Don’t allow any big runs. We were doing that for about 52 minutes out of 60 (against Frank Gore last Thursdy), and then in those last eight minutes we let our guard down. I don’t know what it was, but he ended up getting a couple runs, Frank did. We never like to see that.”
When asked if he’s seen a back similar to Tomlinson, Tatupu recalled a teammate from his USC days. “I played against Reggie Bush (in practice), who is similar. When you have a six-time pro bowler and potential MVP like LaDainian, that’s not fair to him to compare the two,” Tatupu said. “They’re good friends. I know they are, so I know he won’t mind the comparison. I know Reggie will love it. What our coach stresses, they’re called Barry Principles; like Barry Sanders type cut backs, able to do everything. We always have to know where #21 is on the field.”
For Tatupu and the defense he runs, the only hope against such a player is to avoid the bugaboos that have plagued this defense all season – players trying too hard, missing assignments and playing from a disadvantage. That’s all it is,” he said when asked about what it will to take for the Seahawks to stop Tomlinson and pull off the upset. Everybody staying where they’re supposed to be, being accountable, holding themselves accountable, and wrapping up and making a tackle.”
Shaun Alexander, like Reggie Bush, knows what the Tomlinson comparisons are like – the two backs have been the NFL’s finest since the start of the new millennium. While L.T. has had a season for the ages, Alexander’s year has lagged behind. He missed six games with a broken bone in his left foot, and he’s only gained 664 yards (3.4 yards per carry, a full yard per carry behind his career average) behind an offensive line in transition. Still, he’s happy for his friend - Alexander knows, more than most, how rare these kinds of seasons can be.
“I was motivated about this game when the schedule came out,” Alexander told the media on Thursday. “LaDainian is a good friend of mine and he is a great talent, a great person. Our careers are so similar in so many ways, people like that you get excited to play against. Of course we won’t be on the field at the same time, but it is cool to play against somebody like that.”
How did Alexander feel when his touchdown record, set only last year, was broken? “You know, when you start off as hot as he did, then I broke my foot, so it was like, ‘I get to watch him a couple times.’ It was going to happen. When he broke it, I don’t know what I was doing … someone texted me and said ‘hey, he broke your record,’ so I was like ‘oh, finally.’ It wasn’t a big deal.”
Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer would like the sensation of riding a historic season from his running back to the Super Bowl, and that’s something Mike Holmgren knows everything about. Holmgren was asked on Wednesday whether he agreed with Schottenheimer’s recent assertion that Tomlinson is the “finest running back he’s ever seen”:
“Well, coach Schottenheimer would know,” Holmgren said. “He’s had great backs in his coaching career, and he knows him intimately. I just admire him from a distance. But what I see, on film, is a very special player. There is no question about that. Marty has coached in this league a long time. I have a tendency to believe the things he says along those lines. So I would just say, yeah, to me he looks pretty special. In my dealing with him, personally with LaDainian during games and stuff, he seems like a real nice young guy. That’s a pretty good combination.
“One, he's the complete package. He's an excellent pass receiver, he's a great runner. The obvious thing you see is he is a great runner. He has got good speed, good quickness and balance. You can't be a running back and carry the ball as many times as he does and not be tough physically. I suppose you could overanalyze him. I think you just look at him and he's pretty doggone good. No one has the season he is having without being a special player. You are now in the elite.
"He has always been good, though. He is not an overnight, ‘Wow, I'm surprised by this’. He has always been good, but just the numbers this year are special.
“I'm going to stay away from comparing him to people, if you don't mind,” Holmgren responded to one member of the media, who asked if Tomlinson has Marcus Allen’s nose for the goal line. “First of all, I would judge him on what he's done on its own merit. Excellent player. I mean, really. Marcus Allen, excellent player. When you get into that level, just let me pick. They are all great. I believe some backs have a knack in that area of field, I know that. Marcus Allen certainly did. But Marcus is a bigger man. You just look at him and they're different, that way. But LaDainian, certainly, you score that many touchdowns you have a knack. Shaun Alexander has a knack. He has a good feel for it. Certain backs, it's hard to define what that is. But they've got it. And he's got it.”
He’s got “it”, alright. And it’s on its way to Seattle.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. He also writes the weekly "Manic Monday" feature for FoxSports.com. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.