- "He is the finest running back ever to wear an NFL uniform."
-- Marty Schottenheimer, on LaDainian Tomlinson, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2006
Marty Schottenheimer couldn't help himself. He remembers Jim Brown and Gale Sayers, and he was well acquainted with Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith, and still he said it, straight, like there was no doubt about it. More than any number, this moment of unguarded hyperbole is by far my favorite measure of how great a running back LaDainian Tomlinson is. He's so great he makes Marty go all goofy-in-love. He's so great he inspires premature declarations and gauntlet throws. He's so great you have to gush.
Who is the greatest running back in NFL history? Which one had the best season ever? We want your picks.
Despite the 29-and-counting touchdown total, a quick-hit sober analysis says we shouldn't even be having the conversation. LT's 4.4 career yards per carry over six seasons are dwarfed by Brown's 5.2 over nine. His best single-season rushing total is 300-plus yards short of O.J.'s 14-game 1973 season1. His 8,788 career rushing yards are light years and many long, painful seasons away from Smith's 18,355. And the 9.2 yards per catch he's posting so far in 2006 are nice, just not quite as nice as Brown's 9.5 over his entire career, including four seasons of more than 10 yards per catch.
But here's the thing: analysis, and even arguments, aren't everything (they're important, but they don't exhaust the topic). To hit the record books and build top-10 lists and assure the kids of today that LT's no Jim Brown is to miss the point of this guy in this moment.
Marty doesn't say Tomlinson's numero uno because he has run the numbers and is ready to build an airtight case. Folks on talk radio and in the papers these last few weeks don't raise the prospect and utter the sacred "all-time" and "best-ever" phrases because they've got no sense of history or appreciation for what a complicated question it is. He does it, they do it, we all do it, because we're geeked about this kid, because we sense an undeniable magic about him.
In fact, "He is the finest running back ever to wear an NFL uniform," is more about Marty than a statement about the essence or the accomplishments of Tomlinson. It's about the giddy feeling he gets watching his tailback shred the opposition every week. It's about running out of language to describe that feeling and reaching for reckless overstatement because in spirit it's the only thing that comes close. It's about ringing a bell, shouting a hallelujah. It celebrates 29-and-counting. It celebrates 52 receptions and 285 carries. It celebrates the giggle that rises up in your throat when LT makes one of those impossible lateral hop cuts into free space, part water bug on the pond and part sumo wrestler on the mat. It celebrates the "watch this" gasp you let out when he drops back, looking every bit the superhero, and lofts one to Antonio Gates for six.
When the Chargers recovered a fumble late against Denver on Sunday, and lined up first-and-goal on the Broncos' 7, you knew -- the way you once knew Jordan would hit the shot over Bryon Russell, the way you once knew Bonds would turn on low inside gas from Eric Gagne and put the ball in McCovey Cove -- he would score, on the first attempt. There was no doubt in your mind. You had no room for thoughts that the defensive line might fill a gap or that a DB might meet him at the corner. All of the contingencies that make up a game were gone. Why? Because he makes you feel like they are. Because he's that good right now. Because he is, like Marty said, "the finest running back ever to wear an NFL uniform." That's why.
Western sports culture tends to think in postindustrial revolution terms, in things quantified and produced. Is LT truly the greatest back of all time? Of course not. Of course it's too early to tell. He's looking like a good candidate to be part of the debate when all is said and done2, though it seems likely, even if he stays healthy and plays long enough to pass Smith, he'll fall short of the crazy standard Brown put down carry by carry and peak performance by peak performance.
But if you'll forgive a little bastardized Zen philosophy here, I don't care about that right now. To me, there's an Eastern thing at work and available to us when it comes to LT, too. There's an in-the-moment appreciation that surrenders logic and abandons reason. I'm right there with Marty in it. I'm saying Tomlinson's the best ever. Screw it. It feels right. I'm shouting it. I'm reveling in the here and now with it. My personal gun-to-the-head, lay-it-down-in-ink Top Five still reads Brown, Payton, Sanders, Smith and O.J. before LT (ask me again in five more years), but that's if I'm thinking about history and the boundaries of the NFL tradition and quantifying and producing and such.
The beauty of what LT's doing right now is that it has me -- every time he rotates his shoulders like a shadow boxer, every time he busts a little locomotion up the middle for 40-something and paydirt -- not thinking at all.
1Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders points out that O.J.'s 2003-yard season was accomplished while playing with a quarterback, Joe Ferguson, who put together "one of the worst quarterback seasons in history, completing less than 45 percent of his passes and throwing just four passing touchdowns."
2Fun stat of the day, courtesy of the good people at profootballreference.com: If the current pattern holds, only two players in postmerger NFL history will have ever led the league in a major offensive category and doubled the output of the next-closest competitor in the process. Jerry Rice had 22 touchdown catches to double up Mike Quick's 11 in 1987, and Tomlinson currently has 26 rushing touchdowns to Larry Johnson's 13.
Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com and Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.