by Joe Fortenbaugh
February 23, 02010
Monday’s news that the San Diego Chargers have parted ways with running back LaDainian Tomlinson has created a growing wave of speculation about where the former MVP will end up playing football in 2010.
And here’s where it gets interesting: LT might not be the only big-name running back looking for a new home this offseason.
Thomas Jones could be joining him on the open market very shortly.
Rich Cimini of the New York Daily News pointed out on Monday that Jones is due a $3-million roster bonus in addition to the $2.8-million salary he’s set to earn next season. He turns 32 in August and is currently playing for a team that saw its rookie third-round draft choice (Shonn Green, Iowa) lead the NFL in postseason rushing with 304 yards.
In addition to the emergence of Greene, the Jets also have dual-threat running back Leon Washington set to return after his season was cut short by a broken fibula he suffered in October.
The equation Jones could be looking at is simple: Big contract + crowded backfield + age = release.
But unlike the drop in production that Tomlinson experienced in 2009, Jones posted the best statistical season of his 10-year NFL career. The former Virginia Cavalier carried the ball 331 times for 1,402 yards (third in the NFL), with 14 touchdowns (tied for third). All three of those numbers were career highs.
At 5-10, 212 pounds, Jones is a physical back capable of pounding the ball between the tackles. He’s averaged 4.37 yards per carry over his past two seasons, demonstrating the ability to pick up the tough yards and move the sticks.
And keep in mind, Jones ran for over 1,400 yards last season despite facing defenses that were constantly sending seven and eight men into the box to defend the run. The Jets ran the ball 58.9 percent of the time, more than any other team in the NFL.
Translation: The guy still has enough gas left in the tank to make an impact somewhere.
So which teams could make a run at Jones if he hits the market this offseason? For starters, there’s the Chargers, who have made it known they’re interested in adding another running back to share the workload with Darren Sproles.
But here’s another idea: How about the Philadelphia Eagles?
Speculation has been mounting that the organization could part ways with running back Brian Westbrook, who’s set to make $7.25 million in 2010. In addition, he’ll be 31 years old in September and hasn’t played a full 16-game season in his eight-year career.
If Westbrook is released, the team still has a 1-2 jab (not punch) in LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver (who will be a restricted free agent this offseason). But Weaver is a fullback by trade who has never carried the ball more than 70 times in a season in his five-year career, and McCoy has yet to prove he can handle the beating an every-down running back takes over the course of a 16-game season.
And it’s no secret that a serious 1-2 punch can translate into postseason success.
Of the seven teams that won at least one playoff game last season (Jets, Ravens, Cowboys, Cardinals, Saints, Vikings, Colts), five had at least two running backs with 108 or more carries during the regular season.
Only the Colts (Donald Brown, 78 carries) and Vikings (Chester Taylor, 94 carries) didn’t make the cut. But Brown appeared in just 11 games due to a variety of injuries and Taylor backed up Adrian Peterson, who finished fourth in the NFL with 314 carries.
By the way, Peterson’s 314 carries fell just nine attempts short of the 323 rushes that McCoy, Weaver, Westbrook and quarterback Donovan McNabb combined for in 2009.
The point here is simple: You have to run the ball to win in the NFL.
That doesn’t mean your offense has to be a run-first unit. It also doesn’t mean you have to put the ball on the ground 30-plus times every week.
What it means is that for an offense to succeed, it needs to be able to establish a running game that can convert short-yardage situations and keep defenses honest — which, in turn, will open up the downfield passing attack and help to control the clock.
And yes, that premise translates to championships.
Eight of the last 10 Super Bowl champions ran the ball at least 45 percent of the time during the regular season.
On the other hand, the Eagles have run the ball 45 percent of the time just once in the past 10 years (2002).
In run-to-pass ratio, Philly has ranked 20th or worse in eight of the past 10 seasons. In addition, it finished 26th or worse four times during that span.
In essence, it’s hard to find a team that has been less committed to the running game than the Eagles have over the past decade.
So how do the Eagles fix this decade-long commitment phobia they have to running the football?
If Jones becomes available, sign him (or, at the very least, bring in a physical, downhill runner who can lower his shoulder and hit the hole). Then, commit and divide 400 carries between him and McCoy. This keeps Jones fresh for the season and limits the wear on McCoy for the future.
The best part: 400 carries ranks 23rd or worse over the past 10 years in total team rushing attempts, meaning head coach Andy Reid would still have plenty of opportunities to throw the ball — something we all know he loves to do. It also gives the Birds the opportunity to get some other running backs (Weaver, for example) involved throughout the season.
I know what you’re thinking: Thomas Jones is going to come with a hefty price tag. But if you want quality, you’ve got to be willing to pay for it. What else would you expect from a guy who ran for 1,400-plus yards and 14 touchdowns last season? He’s in the final act of his career and will be looking for one last payday before hanging up his spikes.
And don’t start the argument that Jones isn’t a long-term solution. If the Eagles choose to stick with McNabb in 2010, they aren’t thinking about the future. They’re thinking about one more run at a Super Bowl title.
Jones could be the guy who helps get them there—4.2 yards at a time.
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