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LaDainian Tomlinson on short list of all-time RBs

The retirement press-conference tears have yet to cascade upon the designer suit, but let's jump right into the discussion anyway: Where does LaDainian Tomlinson fit among the list of the NFL all-time greatest running backs?

That really depends how you look at it. At his peak, Tomlinson was arguably the greatest all-around back in league history. Don't believe me? Check out his six-year stretch from 2002 through 2007.

During that period with the San Diego Chargers, Tomlinson averaged 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. He finished with 2,370 total yards in 2003. In 2006, he rushed for 28 touchdowns and caught three more TDs for a record 31 scores. These are video game numbers in a time when offense didn't genuflect at the altar of the forward pass.

Now imagine if Tomlinson pulled a Jim Brown and promptly retired at 28 to make a bunch of bad movies. Where would he fit in historically? According to, the list of players whose career was of similar size and shape through seven seasons includes Marshall Faulk, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, Edgerrin James, Jim Brown, Ricky Watters, Roger Craig, Lydell Mitchell and Walter Payton.

That's some pretty rarified air, and you could make the case that Tomlinson was better than any of them.

Of course, Tomlinson didn't retire at 28. He hung around for four more seasons, his production steadily declining. By the end of his final season with the New York Jets, Tomlinson's burst was history, his ability to separate from defenders kaput. We all remember Tomlinson at his glorious apex, but it's hard to forget (at least for now) all those three-yard runs at the Meadowlands.

Neil Young has the famous line, "It's better to burn out, than to fade away." Players like Jim Brown and Barry Sanders ultimately benefited from ending their careers before they lost a step. Tomlinson hung around long enough to seem human, and that doesn't help a legacy.

But don't worry about LT. Five years from now, tears will cascade onto another suit jacket -- this time the gold ones they hand out in Canton.

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