|Early in the 2000s, LaDainian Tomlinson and Priest Holmes were head and shoulders above all running backs.|
With "The Top 100 Players of 2011" winding down, it got us thinking: Who are the greatest players of the new millennium, the Y2K era? Since 2000, broad developments in NFL strategy have taken place, as well as the specialization of the players who fit into these new schemes. So who has thrived most in the league's ever-evolving environment?
Today, Steve Wyche and Elliot Harrison make a case for the best running back. Got an opinion of your own? Sound off in the comments section below.
Wyche: A case for LaDainian Tomlinson
There is a difference between being the top running back of the year, a decade and even an era. LaDainian Tomlinson is one of the top running backs -- ever.
We might not fully appreciate everything that he's done right now because we're seeing him play out his final years for the New York Jets instead of the San Diego Chargers, with whom he established his greatness for nine seasons. Soon, most likely when he's done, we'll begin to understand just how great he was.
Tomlinson enters this season, maybe his last, as the sixth all-time leading rusher. He's totaled 13,404 rushing yards. Throw in his 4,323 receiving yards, and you have more than 10 miles worth of hard labor and glory over a 10-year career. There are also those 159 total touchdowns.
Let's also not forget about all the times he's had to pick up blitzing defensive ends and block other players. That's part of the job description, too.
Tomlinson likely will surpass Jerome Bettis (13,662 yards) this season to move into fifth place in career rushing yards. If he puts in work like he did in 2010, he'll also bypass No. 4 all-time rusher Curtis Martin (14,101). Tomlinson's a certain Hall of Famer. We can't say that about any other running back in the game right now.
Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson are on their way, but they each need to probably get in four to six more years of the type of productivity that they've generated in the early portion of their careers. They've been nothing short of awesome, but they haven't even reached their second contracts.
It's also hard to imagine any of today's full-time running backs having 100 receptions in a season like Tomlinson had in 2003, when he also rushed for 1,645 yards, or any player -- let alone a running back -- scoring 31 touchdowns like Tomlinson did in 2006 when he was the league's MVP. To underscore how impressive that was, the Houston Texans led the NFL in rushing touchdowns last season with 20.
Sure, Tomlinson's been knocked for going Jay Cutler in the playoffs or being somewhat of a moody player, but so what? Tomlinson's also beloved for being a quality human being. To last as long as he has and to be as productive as he's been, there's really no comparison to Tomlinson.
Unless you're talking about all-time greats.
Harrison: A case for Priest Holmes
The easy, slam-dunk choice here would be Adrian Peterson, especially with my omniscient colleague Steve Wyche taking LaDainian Tomlinson. A.P. is the guy who's been passed the torch from L.T. as the best back in the game, right?
As powerful as he is, defenses don't focus on Peterson the way they do Tennessee's Chris Johnson. To date, Johnson has averaged more yards rushing per game (97.8 to 94.8) and higher yards per carry (5.0 to 4.8) than Peterson.
But it's not CJ2K, either.
Regarding LT2 -- there is only one "L.T." folks, and he wore No. 56 for the Giants -- there were few times in his career in which I thought he was the best running back in the league. In fact, when Tomlinson first came into the league, the most productive back by far was someone else ...
From 2001 to 2004, Holmes led all running backs in rush yards per game, receiving yards per game and touchdowns. Had he not suffered a string of injuries that cut his career short, he would be the back of the 2000s, no discussion needed.
I got Rick-rolled when I presented that argument to our editor extraordinaire, Simon Samano. Hey, sometimes the truth hurts. For Holmes it certainly did. First he hurt his hip, cutting short a brilliant 2004 campaign in which he was averaging over 100 yards rushing per game. Then he suffered a devastating neck injury in 2005 that ultimately ended his career. Holmes was the 2000s version of Terrell Davis, just without the Super Bowl rings -- a small but unbelievable body of work cut down by his body failing him.
Holmes was a force of nature. So before you destroy my pick in the online poll, just check these numbers out:
2001: 2,169 yards from scrimmage, 10 touchdowns
2002: 2,287 yards from scrimmage, 24 touchdowns (in only 14 games!)
2003: 2,110 yards from scrimmage, 27 touchdowns
The debate around the greatest running backs has always centered on who you would take in his prime. That's why Gale Sayers is in the Hall of Fame. Holmes vs. Peterson? Holmes all day. Holmes vs. Tomlinson? Well ...