Sunday, December 10, 2006

LT not yet GOAT

If you think you know football, and you think you know great running backs, then you need to read this. If you don't know about great running backs, you're about to get educated.

In response to LaDainian Tomlinson setting a new single-season TD record (29) this afternoon, has a new poll question up:

Who is the greatest running back of all time?
Jim Brown
Walter Payton
Barry Sanders
Emmitt Smith
LaDainian Tomlinson

The scariest part of this poll: LT has captured 20% of the vote so far, and he's leaps and bounds ahead of Smith and - more astonishingly - Brown.

That's somewhat flattering to the new touchdown king, but let's just put things in perspective, shall we. On a day where Tiki Barber became the 20th back with 10,000 career rushing yards, this is a poll putting LT in the same category as the greatest backs in the history of the game. Now, I don't think Barber should be included in that group, but neither should LT - at least not yet.

If this question was "who had the best season for a running back?" or "who had the best first six years in the league at running back to start a career?" then LT would make for a fine choice.

Just because he set a new mark doesn't mean he automatically gets put in the same category, or the same realm of greatness, as those other names. Yet somehow it's happened.

Before I continue what I'm sure many would consider an LT-bashing, let me just make a case for him. He's in his sixth year, and at this pace should reach the 10,000 yard plateau at the end of the 2007 campaign. If - if - he can stay healthy, he has a legitimate chance to become the all-time rushing leader (which would be a tough task considering he's not yet halfway to Emmitt Smith's 18,355).

When historians look at back LT's career, they will see a Hall of Famer. He's helped to revitalize a struggling San Diego Chargers franchise. He's the heart pumping life through that organization and has been ever since arriving in 2001.

But before you put him in a category with Brown, Payton, Sanders and Smith, let's look at what those four did. Really quickly, here's a look at the NFL top 8 all-time leading rushers:
1. Emmitt Smith 18355
Walter Payton 16726
Barry Sanders 15269
4. Curtis Martin 14101
5. Jerome Bettis 13662
6. Eric Dickerson 13259
7. Tony Dorsett 12739
8. Jim Brown 12312

Now, numerically you can't argue with Smith, Payton and Sanders, and had Jim Brown played more than nine - yes, nine - seasons in the league, there's no doubt he would have continued to run over defenders at an alarming rate.

The knock on Emmitt is that he had great blocking and played on a good team, so he's not the greatest. Okay, arguably Michael Jordan played on a good team. Joe Montana played on a good team. Perhaps it wasn't a good team around him as much as him making the team better. There's no denying Smith's blockers were great - perhaps none greater than his fullback Darryl "Moose" Johnston - but someone still had to gain those yards.

Walter Payton. Sweetness. For nearly two decades his 16,726 seemed like the Holy Grail of pro football. He was the wheels that kept the famed '85 Bears moving in the right direction. He ran with a combination of power and speed that hasn't been seen since he hung up his cleats.

Barry Sanders [who by the way is leading's poll by a large margin] had jukes and moves that made video games require bigger hard drives. No one has escaped from as many defenders who had the "sure tackle" as Sanders. He was elusive. More importantly, he avoided getting hit hard, allowing him to play until he decided it was time to call it a career.

The best running back of all time is Jim Brown. No one has ever dominated the way he did. He led the league in rushing all but one year he played. And no defense could stop him, only the dream of an acting career.

So before LT gets put in Canton, let's just make sure he can keep it going like those who are already there.

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