Chargers Review: Running Backs

The best player on the San Diego Chargers, LaDainian Tomlinson, was number two in MVP voting this season, a testament to his superior talent level on a 4-12 team. If there was a model of consistency and heart, it was found at this position. In his third year in the league, Tomlinson has stepped up as a vocal leader and his voice will be heard even more in the future. Guiding the light, Lorenzo Neal was instrumental in Tomlinson's success.

Much like Ray Lewis in Baltimore, who sparks the offense, LaDainian Tomlinson sparks the defense. Behind an offensive line that saw nine different combinations of starters, Tomlinson ran for 1,645 yards. He led the league with 2,370 combined yards from scrimmage (725 receiving), the second most in a single-season by any player in league history behind only Marshall Faulk's 2,429 in 1999. In 2002, he established the team record for combined yards from scrimmage with 2,172 (1,683 rushing, 489 receiving).

Tomlinson became the first running back in NFL history to have 100 receptions and 1,000 yards rushing in a single season. His 100 receptions were enough to top the AFC and place him fourth in the league.

Tomlinson added two-200 yard rushing games, including a 243 yard effort against Oakland to break his own franchise record yards in a single game. It marked the fourth he broke 200-yards rushing in his career, making him the second fastest player in NFL history to reach the 200-yard four separate times (48 games). Earl Campbell did it in 46 games, but did not have another in his career. Tomlinson's four 200-yard games also are tied for second place in league history, along with Jim Brown, Campbell and Barry Sanders. The record for 200-yard games is six, held by OJ Simpson.

Tomlinson even met his personal goal for the season – have an average of 5.0 yards per carry on the season. He carried the rock 313 times to average 5.3 yards per carry.

Tomlinson became just the fifth back to score ten touchdowns in the first three seasons of his career. Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders are the others.

Yet, Tomlinson did not make the Pro Bowl.

Tomlinson was more than just records. He personally converted 107 first downs, accounting for 41% of the Chargers first downs. On third and one he was 8-12, a huge improvement from a year ago.

Don't forget the 17 touchdowns LT scored, just less than half the total touchdowns scored by the team (38). He also added a touchdown pass, traversing 21 yards to Drew Brees.

Need a big play? LT had 12 runs of 20 yards or more on the season, adding seven more as a receiver.

Forget the stats, Tomlinson displayed determination when the team was at its lowest point. He became vocal as the season moved along and has taken it personally that he was not voted to the Pro Bowl. His demeanor screams of a winning attitude and he deserves to succeed. One back, two back sets, it does not matter – LT makes his own holes.

"When you win a game, it makes it more fun to talk about it and the team can celebrate," says Tomlinson. That is the attitude he exudes.

"I'm not a quitter," Tomlinson added at the end of the season. "I can't think of anything else I want more of than to just taste what the playoffs feel like."

He is the ultimate professional, on and off the field. He has the best hands in the business as seen by his output as a receiver. In 413 touches, he had just one fumble and it was recovered by the Bolts. Simply amazing.

Lorenzo Neal was "the" fullback. He took on the tough assignment of blocking ahead of the shifty Tomlinson. Neal showed his toughness by tossing it up with some of the elite in the league. His defining moment was leveling Ray Lewis, arguably the best linebacker in the game.

The strangest part of Neal's success is his blocking technique. Odds are you will never see Neal being called for holding. He bulls over people with what is best termed as a shoulder block. In essence, Neal puts his weight behind each block and does not engage a player long enough to get tied up with. Instead he can pop one person and bounce off to block number two on the same play. In other words, his blocking was solid.

Neal had 18 rushes on the season, his most since 1996. Most of the carries came in short yardage situations and didn't go far. Neal added 16 receptions for 62 yards, but had trouble turning any upfield for a significant gain. When he did catch the ball, he often stumbled to the ground shortly after. The hope was he would be a better presence around the goalline, and it appears his best trait, blocking, is where he should stay.

Jesse Chatman barely saw the field as backup to Tomlinson. He had just eight rushes on the season. In limited action, he averaged just 2.1 yards per carry. He did show nice hands out of the backfield in the rare times he was called upon, catching five balls for 54 yards.

Chatman has not been the runner to spell Tomlinson when he is tired. Other backs on the roster were not used much in that role either, with Chatman leading the running back group. Where Chatman excelled was in his special teams play. Chatman led the special teams unit in tackles with 16 on the season. That alone should keep him on the roster.

Leon Johnson, added just before the season, was the main kickoff and punt returner when Tim Dwight and Eric Parker went down, respectively. Johnson had 50 kickoff returns, averaging 23.0 per return, good for 14th in the league. He also added 24 punt returns, averaging 7.7 per return, good for 23rd in the league. He also added five special teams tackles, three of the solo variety.

Considering he only had four other carries on the season, his future with the team is in question. He is painfully slow on returns and was not able to break many tackles. His cutting ability is also not what is needed from an explosive return man.

Andrew Pinnock was drafted in the seventh round of the 2003 Draft and many envisioned him as the big bruiser who would get a few short yardage carries. Instead Pinnock was used primarily on special teams, with the rare chance to be a lead fullback for LT. He posted five tackles and returned two kickoffs for 50 yards. Expect Pinnock to get a few more carries in year two and he could become a true force in short yardage. Note to self: we said this last year.

En"Lightning" Notes: RB LaDainian Tomlinson said he would go to Hawaii and the Pro Bowl if any of the backs ahead of him -- Jamal Lewis, Priest Holmes, Clinton Portis -- are unable to play because of injuries.

Up next: Wide Receivers

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net

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