Tomlinson And Johnson Meet Again

Let's pretend this weekend's game against the Chargers is taking place in 2006. We'll take the same rosters for both teams, but rewind the clock.

Instead of the top story lines for Sunday's game being Darren Sproles' electric return ability or Todd Haley searching for his first victory inside Arrowhead Stadium, chances are we're talking about two of the NFL's best runners going head to head - LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson.

Tomlinson's 2006 campaign was one of the best in NFL history, with over 1,800 rushing yards and a record-breaking 31 touchdowns. At the time, there was no better running back in the game, and LT was being favorably compared to the best backs of all time – Gale Sayers, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Walter Payton.

Johnson's 2006 wasn't too shabby, either, as he totaled just under 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns. It was his second 1,700-yard campaign in as many years. He was in the midst of making Chiefs fans forget Priest Holmes hadn't yet retired.

Fast forward to the present, and the story's a little different. Johnson's combined rushing yards in 2007, 2008 and 2009 still don't equal what he tallied in 2006 alone. Double the touchdowns he's registered in that time, and he's still shy of the 17 he scored in 2006. Three years has made a world of difference.

Tomlinson's fall from the summit has been considerably more gradual, as his numbers have incrementally dropped. This year, though he's only appeared in three games due to injury, he's on pace for the first non-1,000-yard season of his career. He's averaging a meager 3.7 yards per carry, the worst since his rookie season.

Both LT and LJ are trying to find their way back to the top of the game. Johnson's just trying to get back to being the workhorse for his team and a potential Pro Bowler, while LT is trying to regain his crown as the game's best runner from Adrian Peterson. While their journeys to the present are different, their quests to regain respect and prove they've still got something left in the tank aren't so unfamiliar.

In San Diego, Tomlinson managed to stave off the emergence of Michael Turner, who the Bolts sent to Atlanta where he found raving success last season. Now, he's trying to outshine "Lightning Bug" - Darren Sproles. While fantasy owners aren't shy to bench Tomlinson, getting NFL players and coaches to admit he's no longer a top back isn't easy. Count Chiefs' head coach Todd Haley and linebacker Derrick Johnson among them.

"He scares me every time I see him," said Haley. "He's a scary back."

"He's still a great player and we're still going to give him all the respect," said Johnson.

Where Johnson is concerned, the Chiefs are equally complimentary. Johnson's backup, Jamaal Charles, said the Chiefs needed to get better on the offensive line. Haley was quick to do anything but blame his starting running back.

"Larry's numbers are probably not what you'd like, but you can't point the finger just at him," he said. "There's a lot of factors involved. I think Larry's ready to go each and every week, and I'm looking for him to do a good job this week."

Looking at the stats alone, Haley, Charles and DJ sound as if they're just being cordial, like they don't want to kick a once-great player while he's down. But Johnson said you have to look beyond the statistics.

"Sometimes when you look at numbers, you don't get the real thing, it's skewed a little bit," he said. "Sometimes you can't look at numbers, especially with a guy like LT. I saw three or four runs last week in that Monday Night game he could have broke, but he got tripped up. It's just little things that probably haven't been happening for him."

For guys like LT and LJ, who were used to gliding through open pastures and diving into paydirt on a regular basis, periods of restricted production can be frustrating. Johnson said that was apparent watching the Chargers play Denver Monday Night.

"Watching him on Monday night, he was really frustrated," said Johnson. "There were some plays where they took him out of scoring touchdowns and doing what he does best. That can get him a little frustrated, which is understandable."

Monday night, when the Chargers were dangerously close to the goal line, it was Sproles who got the chance to break the plane. He came up short and LT was visibly upset. Johnson's not had young, talented backs breathing down his neck and stealing carries, but he knows a thing or two about having scoring opportunities taken away. Against the Giants earlier this season, when the Chiefs were in a similar position, LJ was given only one opportunity to score.

This week, for both Tomlinson and Johnson, could provide opportunity for flashbacks to brighter days, as neither Kansas City nor San Diego possess strong rushing defenses. The Chiefs are ranked 25th in that category and the Chargers 27th. With both teams struggling to run the ball and both backs looking to prove themselves, this might be the time for a stroll down memory lane.

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