Thursday, February 25, 2010

What does the future hold for LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook?

Philadelphia Eagles v San Diego Chargers

So—the harsh realities of player career mortality and the NFL's business side have struck again. A couple of the most beloved players of two different franchises have been unceremoniously released less than 24 hours apart.

First, LaDainian Tomlinson was released by the San Diego Chargers on Monday. Then, before Philly fans could spend too much time wondering how Bolts fans might be feeling, the Eagles followed suit with a similar announcement about Brian Westbrook.

For most every Eagles fan, even if they saw it coming, yesterday was still a very sad day. Westbrook has been a class act and surely one of the most electrifying and accomplished players who has ever worn an Eagles uniform.

In the space of one year, Birds fans have seen two of the team's all-time greats and most popular players walk out the door. Last February, of course, it was Brian Dawkins trading in his midnight green attire for orange and blue. And, now, it is Westbrook who is leaving with destination unknown.

Twelve months later, the wounds of Dawkins exit have yet to heal, especially since they have been frequently brushed open by seeing him continue to flourish in Denver while the obvious void left behind was painfully exposed.

Although the circumstances are different, Philly faithful will surely feel a similar emptiness as their team takes the field when the curtain goes up on next year's NFL season and "Westy" is nowhere to be found.

On the left coast, Chargers fans must be feeling much the same way as they wave goodbye to the best running back in its team history—by a long shot. LT is also one of the most accomplished players in NFL history as well, currently standing third all-time in touchdowns behind Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith, and eighth in rushing with 12,490 yards.

Both running backs share many similarities, which will surely be scrutinized around the league as personnel departments evaluate whether each might be a worthy addition to their own club.

The market for 30+ year old players at their position has historically been limited.

If, and where, each player lands with another club will be highly dependent upon individual circumstances, assessment of physical condition, finances, and personal preference.

The following is a breakdown to assess the situation and perhaps get a glimpse of what the future might hold for these two.

A look back at greatness.

Tomlinson came into the league in 2001 and Westbrook a year later, but followed different paths. LT immediately jumped into a featured back role that lasted throughout his career while Westbrook transitioned from a shared role over the first half of his career.

Additionally, Tomlinson stayed injury free for the majority of his career and racked up the more prolific numbers. LT has been recognized with three All-Pro selections, five Pro Bowls and a plethora of MVP/Player of the Year awards for his 2006 season.

Westbrook has made two Pro Bowl appearances and was elected to the All-Pro Team in 2007. Although his numbers are somewhat modest in comparison to LT, Eagles fans can attest that his contributions were similarly huge.

Tomlinson Rushing: 2,880-12,490 yards, 4.3 avg , 138 TD

Receiving: 530-3,955 yards, 7.5 avg, 15 TD

Combined: 16,445 yards, 153 TD

Westbrook Rushing: 1,308-5,995 yards, 4.6 avg, 37 TD

Receiving: 426-3,790 yards, 8.9 avg, 29 TD

Combined: 9,785 yards, 68 TD

What's left in the tank?

After enjoying spectacular seasons in 2007, both players similarly experienced a drop off in productivity the next year due to injuries. It became more pronounced in 2009 as their numbers markedly declined again.

In Tomlinson's case, he injured his toe and has never seemed to regain his trademark explosiveness. The most telling indicator was his career low 3.3 yards per carry in 2009, leading to by far his lowest rushing output at 730 yards.

The situation was a little bit different for Westbrook, though. He continued to battle chronic knee and ankle injuries; however, what kept him off the field were a pair of concussions. But, when he did get on the field, he often flashed the same darting, elusive style that made him one of the NFL's best players a couple seasons earlier.

Who might be interested?

Considering each player's injury history over the past two years, declining productivity, and age, it is doubtful that any team would consider either of them as a featured back. However, since both players have been highly effective running screens and circling out of the backfield throughout their careers, they might be attractive in a specialty back role.

Economics surely come into play as teams would only be interested if the contractual terms matched the more limited role. It remains to be seen whether these former All-Pro's are willing to accept a greatly reduced base salary, perhaps with some performance bonuses.

My suspicion is that Tomlinson would be more inclined to accept those terms due to his desire to win a Super Bowl, the urge to show he still can play, and his previous earnings. For Westbrook, he will need to weigh whether it is worth the risk of future head trauma, but the right opportunity with a championship contender might be enough of a carrot.

The list of potential suitors would be pretty similar, although Westbrook might only consider a viable Super Bowl contender or a team with a personal connection. LT might be additionally enticed by the chance for more touches.

Naming names.

Unfortunately, in both cases the inability to simply renegotiate a contract similar to what is likely to be offered by another club would have been a win/win; however, that is generally a rare occurrence without the benefit of market value validation and perhaps as each side plays a game of "chicken."

But, it would seem that the Chargers could use a Westbrook and the Eagles could now use a Tomlinson in this newly defined role. Could each involved team be interested in the other's former player?

Here are some possibilities for each player:


1. Denver Broncos- They collect running backs, don't they?

2. Washington Redskins- Shanahan might like to get him on his side for once.

3. Minnesota Vikings- May need a replacement for Chester Taylor.

4. Seattle Seahawks- Could make a good combo with Justin Forsett.

5. Houston Texans- Could use some star power and LT's skills.

6. Philadelphia Eagles- He could run the Wildcat and spell LeSean McCoy.

7. New England Patriots- Belichick loves veteran runners who can catch.


1. Any team that would acquire Donovan McNabb.

2. Minnesota Vikings- May need a replacement for Chester Taylor.

3. Green Bay Packers- Great addition to spell Ryan Grant.

4. Washington Redskins- As long as his brother is on the roster.

5. Denver Bronocs- Reunite with good friend Dawk?

6. San Diego Chargers- Rivers needs a veteran to run screens.

7. New England Patriots- Belichick loves veteran runners who can catch.

How would they fit?

Tomlinson could surely fit in a back-up role, particularly behind a bigger primary ball carrier. In San Diego, the mercurial Darren Sproles served as the third down back, but LT could easily fit into that type of role. And, in this age of Wildcat fascination, his 7 passing TD's might grab the attention of offensive coordinators.

Switching to a third down specialty back role would be a remarkably easy transition for Westbrook as he would be returning to his NFL roots. Besides being a proficient blocker, with a reduced role taking pressure off his knees and ankles, Westbrook could still be one of the best screen receivers in the league.

What will teams consider?

Cost/benefit and risk/reward will be the two critical elements. Neither would come without risk, so structuring a deal that limits fixed costs and pays for performance seems to be almost a necessity.

In the case of Westbrook, medical clearance regarding any ongoing neurological issues is a deal breaker. With increased scrutiny and concern about the ongoing well being of players with multiple head traumas, some teams might opt not to put themselves in a weekly position of making such decision.

Another factor relates to the veteran presence and leadership each would bring to their new team. Both players have strong track records in this regard.

Which player has more value now?

This is really a tough call and there is no clear answer. Tomlinson is the safer bet, but Westbrook has the bigger upside.

The former Charger was reportedly healthy in 2009, yet clearly never displayed the same ability to dart through creases and explode into open spaces. On the other hand, he was on the field much more throughout the season and does not have ongoing injury concerns.

This opposite is true of Westbrook. His last touch was a 27-yard catch and run in the Wild Card game that evoked memories of the 2007 version of the former Eagle. When he got on the field, he often seemed to still have his signature wiggle and elusiveness.

But, everyone knows that he is one bad hit away from retirement. Another concussion and he might well call it a career. Also, his knee is balky and both ankles are less than 100 percent.

The bottom line is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. My guess is both will sign on with other teams.

LT will last as long as he is productive in his given role. Westy will last as long as his body is willing.

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