After reworking his contract with the Chargers recently, LaDainian Tomlinson announced his intention to hunt down Emmitt Smith – specifically, Smith’s career records for rushing yardage (18,335) and rushing touchdowns (164). In fact, LT is prepared to play five more seasons, two beyond his current deal, to knock Emmitt off his throne.
“For so long, I blocked it out,” he said. “It was so far out there. But … I think it’s reachable.”
The touchdown record maybe. Tomlinson (126) needs 39 to pass Smith, and he might be able to get them in sooner than five years if he — and the players around him — can continue functioning at a decent level. But the Big Guacamole, the rushing record … boy, that’s going to be a tough one.
You have to remember, the rushing mark is an iron-man mark as much as anything, requiring almost superhuman endurance. Joe Perry, who held it from 1958 to ’63, played 16 pro seasons. Jim Brown, who held it after Perry, never missed a game. Walter Payton, who overtook Brown, missed just one (in Week 5 as a rookie). And Smith was nigh indestructible for a decade and a half.
Tomlinson has only played eight seasons and already is showing signs of wearing down, hobbling to the finish line last year with toe and groin injuries. His 11,760 rushing yards, meanwhile, still leave him 6,595 shy of Emmitt. Heck, that’s almost as many as John Henry Johnson (6,803) had in his Hall of Fame career.
I just can’t see LT making it. Here’s why:
1. He didn’t start playing in the NFL until he was 22. The previous four record holders – Perry, Brown, Payton and Smith – all broke in at 21. So that puts him at a 937-yard handicap (Emmitt’s rookie total) right out of the gate. Indeed, of the 11 backs who have rushed for 10,000 yards by the end of their 20s, Tomlinson (who turns 30 in June), ranks just fourth … and is only 153 yards ahead of the No. 6 guy:
Barry Sanders – 13,778.
Smith – 12,566.
Brown – 12,312.
LT – 11,760.
Payton – 11,625.
Edgerrin James – 11,607.
Eric Dickerson – 11,226.
Jerome Bettis – 10,876.
Marshall Faulk – 10,395.
Curtis Martin – 10,361.
Jamal Lewis – 10,107.
2. He has more wear and tear on him at this point than any of other all-time top rushers. By “wear and tear,” I mean average touches (rushes and receptions) per season. Here’s how Tomlinson compares to other great backs when they reached their 30th birthday:
LT – 395.9 touches per season.
Dickerson – 378.9.
Martin – 372.6.
Smith – 369.9.
James – 363.
Sanders – 337.1.
Payton – 332.7.
Brown – 291.2.
This doesn’t bode well for Tomlinson’s longevity. Dickerson, who’s closest to him in this category, didn’t have a 1,000-yard rushing year after the age of 29, and the arc of James’ career has been similar. Then there’s Martin, who was suddenly done at 32.
The Chargers likely won’t ask LT to carry as heavy a load from here on out, but that’s problematical, too, because breaking the rushing record requires a lot of carries. Smith had 329 at 30, then 294, 261 and 254 in the following seasons. Can Tomlinson keep going like that?
3. He would have to rush for more yards in his 30s than any back in history – 807 more yards, to be exact (and 6,596 in all). Only three backs have rushed for even 5,000 yards in their 30s – Smith (5,789), John Riggins (5,683) and Payton (5,101).
4. Another tidbit that might amuse you: The Redskins’ Clinton Portis has 9,202 rushing yards through the age of 27. Tomlinson’s yardage at the same stage: 9,176. Does anybody think Portis is going to break the rushing mark? So why should LT?
For plenty of reasons, then, Tomlinson’s Holy Grail figures to be hard to reach. The touchdown record, though, is another matter. As Chargers coach Norv Turner likes to joke, his offense over the years has produced a ton of short TD runs – just ask Smith and Terry Allen (who scored a career-high 21 times for the Redskins in 1996).
– Dan Daly