Now that the New York Jets have agreed to terms with future Hall-of-Famer LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) on a two-year deal, the question can be asked: By releasing Thomas Jones(notes) and signing LDT -- have the Jets improved their running game?
Both players are over 30, which is generally the death knell for backs, but Jones was far more productive last season by any measure. In 2009, Jones gained almost twice as many yards as Tomlinson did (1,402 to 730) on 108 more carries. His yards per carry average was almost a yard better (4.2 to 3.3), which is a worrisome thing when you're talking about a back presumably expected to haul the rock at least 200 times in 2010.
One thing that works in Tomlinson's favor is that his key supporting cast will be better in New York -- the guys blocking for him. According to Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards and other line metrics, Tomlinson is avoiding the fate so common to aging running backs in going to a new team with an inferior line. The Jets ranked ninth in Adjusted Line Yards in 2009, while the Chargers ranked 18th.
ALY assigns responsibility to the offensive line for rushing success or failure based on the length of the run. In addition, the Jets' Power and Stuffed metrics (efficiency and forward progress numbers) were far better than the Chargers -- only the Dolphins and Chargers allowed fewer plays in which their backs were tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Conversely, no team finished lower in Power Success (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown) than the Chargers. That's not entirely the line's fault, but it's pretty clear from stats or film study, that the Jets have one of the best run-blocking lines in the NFL. This is also why Jones, who signed with the Chiefs, has reason to worry -- he's going to be running behind a far inferior line.
When it comes to FO's efficiency stats for running backs, and in an attempt to further separate the efforts of the two lines from the backs for whom they were blocking, Tomlinson was less effective and efficient on a per-play basis, but the numbers once again tell us that Jones benefited far more from his line. Could that Jets line give him the kind of season that Thomas Jones had in 2009? It's doubtful we'll ever see that much productivity from Tomlinson again, but he should see an upswing if he can stay healthy.
In the end, this series of deals for the Jets seemed to be about what they were willing to pay for their running backs. Jones was going to get $5.8 million from the Jets in 2010, which is why they cut him; ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that Tomlinson came aboard for $5.2 million over two seasons and another $500,000 in incentives. We're assuming the contract is structured in such a way to leave the Jets with an easy out should Tomlinson be done sooner than later, but it's nice to see one of the all-time greats finishing up in a favorable situation.