The 'greatest?' Not yet

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

Let's start this by saying that San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson is a truly great player. He is the clear choice for Most Valuable Player and the 30-something touchdowns he's likely going to finish with are simply remarkable.

But to all those people, including San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer, who call Tomlinson the best ever, let's just wait a second. Tomlinson is a splendid player who has just about every skill you could imagine, including the ability to throw passes when necessary.

Tomlinson has a great chance to set all sorts of records if he stays healthy. But in terms of singular greatness, he still hasn't surpassed the work of Jim Brown, Walter Payton or Barry Sanders. Brown, who was ahead of his time, was an amazing combination of size, speed and power.

Payton had every move that Tomlinson possesses and performed at that level for a longer period of time. The same goes for Sanders, although there's a good argument to be made that Tomlinson is a better power runner than Sanders.

This is not to say that Tomlinson won't get there, but to anoint him now because he happens to have broken the NFL's touchdown record in only 13 games and has had a very impressive six-year start to his career is getting ahead of the issue. While clusters of folk (media, fans or even coaches) seemingly don't have the patience to wait, the coronation of Tomlinson still has to play out.

It also requires a little examination. Take the touchdown record, for example. What Tomlinson has done is an impressive feat. He has a record 29 in 13 games and could put the mark well out of sight. At least for awhile. But the touchdown record in football has become like the home run numbers in baseball from the late 1980s to now. In short, the numbers have exploded since the beginning of 2000. Over the past seven seasons, the touchdown record has been broken four times. That began with Marshall Faulk scoring 26 in 2000. Priest Holmes had 27 in 2003. Last year, Shaun Alexander had 28 with Seattle.

Beyond that, the 20-touchdown season is becoming a yearly standard. There have been at least nine times in which a running back has scored 20 touchdowns or more in the past seven years. By comparison, there were only 12 such seasons over the first 68 years that the NFL kept records.

A major reason for the recent explosion is the changes to the game, in particular the advent of wide-open offenses. A quick look at the four backs that have set the record over the past seven years is a good explanation. Faulk, Holmes, Alexander and Tomlinson are more slasher-type runners than power backs.

The reason that works well is that in today's game, the field is more spread out with three- and four-receiver sets. In fact, Faulk customarily lined up in the slot with the Rams and Alexander is the only one in the quartet who hasn't had a 70-catch season. With so many receivers on the field, holes are created in the defense.

Another factor is the decline in tackling skills of defensive players. With more coaches doing whatever they can to preserve their players in practice, defensive players simply don't get the work at hitting and tackling that they need to be sharp. That's particularly the case in working against the running game, leading to increased success for backs.

Especially for ones as talented as Tomlinson.

There are three weeks remaining on the schedule but this is likely the greatest impact year for rookie players. Already, four rookie quarterbacks have become regular starters, including the three first-round picks who look like franchise players. There are four running backs that look special, not including Carolina's DeAngelo Williams, who has flashed the talent to be a starter.

New York Jets offensive linemen Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson are foundation players to build on for coach Eric Mangini. San Diego has gotten an extraordinary performance from rookie left tackle Marcus McNeil, a second-round pick that has started from the beginning of training camp.

In Houston, linebacker DeMeco Ryans has been stellar. The same goes for Green Bay's A.J. Hawk. Chicago cornerback and return man Devin Hester has had an incredible season that has resulted in a record six return touchdowns. So with that, the question is: who's the best of them?

Among running backs, Reggie Bush of the New Orleans Saints has started to blossom the past two weeks after an uneven start. Bush had four touchdowns against San Francisco and turned two short passes against Dallas into important plays. That included a 70-yard touchdown reception off a screen in which Bush did a great job of letting his blockers get in position to help him.

Overall, however, Bush hasn't been much of a threat out of the backfield as a runner, averaging 3.1 yards per carry (the second-lowest average among backs with at least 100 carries). Bush does have 79 receptions and is closing in on the rookie record of 83 set by San Francisco's Earl Cooper in 1980. But those catches are mostly elaborate handoffs with Bush averaging 7.1 yards per catch. Finally, New Orleans didn't spend the No. 2 pick and a minimum of $26 million on Bush just to have a glorified third-down back.

Laurance Maroney of the New England Patriots had an impressive first half, but injuries have stymied him during the second half of the season. Joseph Addai has been more impressive than Maroney with his play for the Indianapolis Colts. Addai has capably filled the shoes of Edgerrin James and has become a trusted receiver for quarterback Peyton Manning.

Finally, Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars has been the greatest bargain of all the backs with his consistent play. Jones-Drew's talent was obvious from the start of training camp and he hasn't tapered off all season, leading all rookies with 12 touchdowns. The second-round pick topped his season with three touchdowns and 303 all-purpose yards last Sunday against Indianapolis.

As for the quarterbacks, Vince Young's individual numbers haven't always been pretty, but the bottom line has been great. The Tennessee Titans are 6-4 with Young at quarterback, and his running and passing abilities have quickly made him a dynamic threat.

Matt Leinart of the Arizona Cardinals is off to one of the better rookie seasons for a quarterback, at least from a statistical standpoint. Likewise, Jay Cutler of the Denver Broncos has flashed ability in his two starts to give the Broncos hope, although perhaps not for anything serious this season.

So who's the best of them? Jones-Drew has probably been the best bargain of all the rookies, giving Jacksonville great impact and the ability to keep the workload down for veteran Fred Taylor. As the Jaguars fight for the playoffs, Jones-Drew figures to be a big part of the run.

But in terms of overall impact, what Young has done this season has exceeded the expectations of many people who thought that Young would either have to take time to develop or would struggle a lot because of his odd throwing motion. Neither has happened, although it will be interesting to see what opposing defenses eventually do to Young and how he adjusts.

For now, however, Young is clearly the best of a stellar class.

Cleveland continues to get terrible news regarding the rash of staph infections that have affected the team over the past three years. Five players have suffered post-surgery infections during that time.

Now, one of those infections could cost prized center LeCharles Bentley another year. Bentley, who signed a six-year, $36 million contract which included a $12 million signing bonus in the offseason, tore his right patellar tendon on the opening day of training camp in July. He subsequently suffered a staph infection and spent more than a month in the hospital.

The infection not only cost Bentley time in his recovery, but he recently had a second surgery performed by Dr. Russ Warren in New York to clean out the knee and check the effect of the infection on the tendon. The news wasn't good, according to two sources.

The infection basically deteriorated the new tendon to the point that Bentley will require another surgery to repair the tendon. The surgery can't be done right away because Bentley's body still hasn't completely healed from the staph infection. Bentley will now likely wait until as late as he possibly can to have another surgery, which could be July or August, still giving him enough time to be ready for the 2008 season.

Agents Jonathan Feinsod and Neil Schwartz have steadfastly declined to comment on Bentley's condition. Browns general manager Phil Savage did not return a call regarding Bentley this week.

Many observers have wondered all season why Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells has steadfastly declined to engage wide receiver Terrell Owens in any public disagreement. The booing that Owens received Sunday night late in the loss to New Orleans is an example of why Parcells has taken this course.

After the Saints scored a final time in their 42-17 victory, the Cowboys started flinging the ball around in desperation. On one play, quarterback Tony Romo looked deep for Owens down the left sideline. Owens was open and Romo delivered a pass that was a little long. Owens had a chance to catch the pass, but turned awkwardly and didn't come close to making the catch. The Texas Stadium crowd erupted with its loudest chorus of boos during the entire game.

How does that relate to Parcells? By taking the high road with "the player," Parcells has allowed Owens to put himself on a pedestal. Owens is alone on that perch with no one to blame but himself for his plight. The fact that Owens (971 yards, nine touchdowns) has had a pretty ordinary season, including a series of dropped passes at critical times, has been exposed.

"Bill made up his mind that he wasn't going to get involved in the soap opera," a source close to Parcells said. "He wants [Owens] to play and he wants him to play well … But he knows the game that Owens is playing with you guys [the media]. He knows that Owens wants the attention and he's going to let it go because it's only going to get worse if he tries to control Owens.

"It's all about getting Owens to play in the game. If Bill can do that, he doesn't care about anything else. If Owens wants to sink himself, Bill's not going to worry about it."

Owens has repeatedly been at the center of potentially explosive situations, ranging from not showing up during the offseason for workouts to not practicing for most of training camp because of a hamstring injury to recently saying during an ESPN interview that he tunes out Parcells at times.

Time after time, Parcells has refused to bite.


  • It might take awhile, but former Seattle Seahawks star Cortez Kennedy probably deserves a little stronger consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Kennedy was, after all, considered one of the best defensive tackles of his era and was voted to the NFL's All-Decade team for the 1990s.

  • Having mentioned Bush, it's worth noting that marketing agent Mike Ornstein has worked his way back into the picture after being fired for a short time by Bush, according to sources. Ornstein has been at each of the Saints' past two games and was ever-present in the locker room after New Orleans beat Dallas.

  • When Denver traded wide receiver Ashley Lelie to Atlanta before the season, there was a significant ruling in September by the special master on what Lelie had to pay back to Denver because he demanded a trade. Lelie was not required to pay back any of the option bonus he received from Denver. The ruling was that the option bonus was a performance-based part of the contract. Because option bonuses have become popular in contracts over the past two years, the reaction to that ruling could have a chilling effect. In the past two weeks, one agent was told by a team executive that the team would not give out an option bonus even though the bonus was for only $500,000. "I don't get it, it's not like my guy was going to take the $500,000 and run," the agent said.

  • Memo to New England fans: Say what you want, but it's increasingly clear to people who watch the Patriots that quarterback Tom Brady misses wide receivers Deion Branch and David Givens. Thinking that Reche Caldwell, Chad Jackson or the recently cut Doug Gabriel would replace those guys was folly by the Patriots, who undervalued the undersized Branch and Givens.

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