The Greatness of LaDainian Tomlinson

This week’s football column is going to focus entirely on LaDainian Tomlinson (but also talk about Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and a host of all-time backs). 

After Week Four Tomlinson was only ranked 22nd in the NFL in RB Score per game.  And his mark of 23.8 was below average (average is 26.5).  In the last eight games, though, Tomlinson has posted a per-game mark of 64.3 and consequently, for the season his RB Score per game stands at 50.8. 

The resurgence of Tomlinson reminds us once again that he’s truly a great back.  But how great?  To answer this question we need to consider his place in history.

But before we get to that, here are this week’s quarterback and running back rankings:

Week Thirteen QB Score Rankings

Overall QB Score Rankings

Overall RB Score Rankings

The Greatness of Tomlinson

When I was a kid my favorite players were running backs. I remember following the exploits of Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett, Franco Harris, and Walter Payton.  And I remember being told, none of these players compared to the legendary Jim Brown.

Jim Brown retired in 1965 with 12,312 rushing yards.  In addition, he is credited with 2,499 yards receiving.  Given that he only played 118 games, these numbers work out to an average of 125.5 yards from scrimmage per game.

What of RB Score? The calculation of this metric requires data on yards, plays, and turnovers.  Although we have the first two factors, I don’t have data on fumbles before 1994. Still, if we assume he was average with respect to fumbles lost then we can guess that Brown lost about 20 fumbles in his career.

And if we put together what we know of yard, plays, and our guess for fumbles, we see that Brown had a career RB Score of 6,351.  This works out to a per-game mark of 53.8.

To put Brown’s career in perspective, let’s consider the RB Score per game of the top 20 retired running backs. 

Table One: The Top 20 Retired Running Backs

Brown left the game in 1965 and his career rushing mark stood until Walter Payton broke his record in 1984. Since then, though, six other backs have passed Brown’s mark, leaving him 8th on the all-time career rushing list.

When we turn to RB Score per game, though, we see a different story. Brown is the only back who posts a per-game mark that is over 50.  In fact, only three other backs listed – Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk, and Tiki Barber – pass the 40 mark (of course Priest Holmes, the subject of last week’s column, also belongs in this group).

What of the backs still playing today?  There are currently five running backs that rank among the top 25 in career rushing yards. Here are their names, career rushing yards, and career RB Score per game (as of last Sunday):

Edgerrin James: 11,307 and 34.5

Fred Taylor: 10,325 and 37.1

LaDainian Tomlinson: 10,225 and 47.1

Warrick Dunn: 10,061 and 30.1

Shaun Alexander: 9,270 and 27.8

Of the backs listed in Table One, Taylor would rank 6th in RB Score per game, while James, Dunn, and Alexander would rank 8th, 11th, and 12th respectively.  In sum, these are all pretty good backs.

But none compare to Tomlinson.  Tomlinson’s numbers rival Barry Sanders.  And if we looked at just yards from scrimmage per game, we see that Tomlinson’s mark of 126.7 surpasses the record of the legendary Jim Brown.

Does this mean Tomlinson is better than Brown?  Statistics in football depend upon a player’s teammates, coaches, and opponents.  Given this reality, it’s hard to compare players who are playing at the same time.  Comparing players who are separated by four decades would seem impossible. Still, the numbers Tomlinson posts suggests he may be one of the top backs to ever play the game. 

At least, that’s true if you ignore Adrian Peterson.  Peterson’s career mark -after 10 games – stands at 73.7.  If Peterson can maintain that mark for the next 100 games, then he will also be one of the all-time greats.  In other words, assuming Peterson doesn’t get hurt, I can expect to write a column “The Greatness of Adrian Peterson” sometime in 2013.

– DJ

For more on QB Score, RB Score and what these metrics mean see

The New QB Score

Consistent Inconsistency in Football

Football Outsiders and QB Score

The Value of Player Statistics in the NFL

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