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Having run for a
league-high 1,815 yards last year, Chargers All-Pro LaDainian Tomlinson
expected to pick up this season right where he had left off. But in his first
two 2007 games he was held to 25 yards rushing by the Bears and
43 yards by the Patriots. Worse, he averaged just 1.9 yards per
When asked earlier this season about the slow starts, Johnson--who along with Tomlinson was a top four pick in most fantasy leagues--plopped onto a folding chair in front of his locker, clasped his hands behind his head, extended his legs and basically said that everyone needed to take a deep breath and relax.
"It's funny that me and LaDainian are the slowest ones getting out of the gate," he said. "Teams are game-planning us more and more. LaDainian winning MVP last year, that's a target on his back early in the season. Same thing with me running for [almost] 1,800 yards. Guys are going to game-plan for you initially to see what you're all about, and then when you get further into the season, they're not going to be putting eight men and nine men in the box anymore, because now guys [on losing teams] are worrying about staying healthy, guys are worrying about getting through the season. It gets cold.
"It's kind of like how defenses get hyped the first 10 minutes of a game and then fade off for the last three quarters," LJ continued. "Defenses always play hard at the start of the season, then lose some of that. There's no reason to panic. It'll start to pick up."
For Johnson, it never really did--and then he went out in Week 9 against Green Bay with a foot injury. He is all too typical. For an unusually large number of the top backs from this year's fantasy draft, the results have ranged from disappointing to miserable. Entering 2007's 14th week, eight of the nine top returning rushers from last season were averaging fewer yards per game than they did in '06. Five have seen their averages fall by at least 20 yards a game, and three of these have had drop-offs of 38 or more. Tomlinson is down from 113.4 yards a game to 87.4; Johnson, from 111.8 to 69.9; San Francisco's Frank Gore, from 105.9 to 64.8; St. Louis's Steven Jackson, from 95.5 to 78.5; and Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson, from 81.8 to 43.2. Seattle's Shaun Alexander, a top pick who wasn't in the top 10 last year with his injuries, fell from 89.6 to 61.9.
Other top backs who avoided big drop-offs have had other woes. Denver's Travis Henry, at 86.5 yards per game, was averaging 7.9 fewer yards than he did last year in Tennessee--but he missed four games this season due to injury. He came back this week, with 49 yards, but is fighting a possible season-ending league suspension. Pittsburgh's Willie Parker had the smallest loss of any top 10 back, at 2.3 yards per game, but his problem is that he can't get into the end zone: After scoring 16 touchdowns in 2006, Parker has two this year.
The reasons these backs have struggled are as varied as the players themselves. Some have battled injuries or are playing on offenses that have been hampered by injuries, particularly along the offensive line. Others are working under new coordinators or are on new teams. And a few have consistently faced stacked defenses because their teams' passing games lack zip. "In our case, we had to go with younger receivers after Eddie Kennison [hamstring] went down," says Chiefs guard Brian Waters, explaining Kansas City's aerial failures. "And the Chargers have young receivers with Keenan McCardell gone." (San Diego did pick up Chris Chambers from Miami at the trade deadline.) "When things like that happen," Waters adds, "you have to be as close to perfect as possible to make the running game go."
In a normal year, time generally is on the side of top running backs. Tomlinson, Larry Johnson and Gore--the league's top three rushers last season--all started slowly in 2006 but rallied. Tomlinson ran for 100 yards once in his first six games, then surpassed that total in each of his next nine, four times running for 170 or more. Johnson reached 100 yards twice in his first five games, which included back-to-back outings with nets of 36 and 26 yards, but then reeled off 120 yards or more in eight of his final 11 games. And Gore ran for 100 yards three times in his first eight games but surpassed that total in six of his final eight, including a franchise-record 212 against Seattle.
But past the midway point this year most players had not regained their stride. Gore and Johnson have been crippled by their clubs being among the league leaders in percentage of three-and-out possessions: San Francisco is first at 32.5, Kansas City second at 30.6. (Of course, the big backs' failures may have something to do with those feeble figures.) Johnson lost a Pro Bowl-caliber blocker, guard Will Shields, to retirement for the second time in as many seasons. (Tackle Willie Roaf left the team in 2006.) Further limiting Johnson's touches, the Chiefs fell behind early in some games and were forced to throw the ball.
Like Johnson, Gore has been banged up: The third-year pro broke a bone in his hand in training camp and was recently slowed by an ankle injury. He also has been hurt by inconsistent play along the line and a weak passing game. Under first-year coordinator Jim Hostler the 49ers have yet to throw for more than 256 yards in a game, and in eight games they failed to break 200.