The throwback running back

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Nov 02, 2005



By Cold, Hard Football Facts senior writer John Dudley
 
They say that change is inevitable. On the gridiron, offensive formations have ranged from the full-house backfield to the run-and-shoot. Play calling has followed trends towards more running, more passing or striking an even balance. Coaches have adopted new philosophies, and players have been asked to perform different assignments.
 
They also say that if you wait long enough, everything comes back in style. Like in the early days of journalism, Cold, Hard Football Facts are very much the rage again. The media "pundits" who choose to ignore them become laughingstocks. We mock their mauve leisure suit of opinion and step on their shiny white shoes of ignorance.
 
One player who evokes memories of a bygone era is San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson – and not just because the Chargers sometimes don those retro powder-blue uniforms. He is a throwback to the time before specialization, and he takes great pride in being a complete back. His accomplishments, both as a runner and a receiver, have deservedly been well-documented.
 
Tomlinson established a new NFL record by scoring a rushing touchdown in 14 consecutive games when he reached the end zone twice in a Week 2 tilt against Denver. He eventually extended the mark to 18 straight, further separating himself from the two former Redskins who had previously shared first place, John Riggins and George Rogers. Tomlinson's TDs in 18 consecutive games equaled the long-standing record set by Hall of Famer Lenny Moore, whose touchdown streak over three seasons with the Colts included scores on pass receptions and a fumble recovery. In 2003, Tomlinson became the first player in league history to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes in the same season.
 
Such tremendous production and versatility through his first four years had already made Tomlinson the best running back in football. Yet he has taken his game to an even higher level by emerging as a true triple threat: Tomlinson has thrown for a touchdown in three different games this season.  
 
Tomlinson's passing fancy hasn't come out of thin air. His first TD toss was a 21-yarder in 2003, when he hit Drew Brees on, appropriately enough, a throw-back-to-the-quarterback play. After completing one of two passes without a score last season, Tomlinson has regained his magic touch in 2005: three attempts, three completions, three touchdowns.  
 
The halfback option pass has definitely experienced a rebirth under Tomlinson. Over the previous twenty years, only three running backs had registered more than one TD pass in a season. San Diego head coach Marty Schottenheimer isn't just repeatedly calling the same play either; Tomlinson has hit four different receivers with his scoring throws. The targets this season have been wideout Keenan McCardell (26 yards), backup tight end Justin Peelle (4 yards) and receiver Eric Parker (17 yards).
 
Interestingly, the term "halfback" is seldom used anymore in today's NFL unless it's in the context of a "halfback option pass." The play was much more in vogue during the 1950s and '60s, when the offensive formations and backfield roles were less generic. Legendary coach Vince Lombardi was a big proponent of the halfback option, and he would occasionally feature it to counteract defenses that were cheating up to stop the power sweep.
 
When he was designing the offense as a New York Giants assistant, Lombardi made Frank Gifford his starting left halfback. Gifford had been a single-wing tailback for USC, and Lombardi wanted to maximize his skills both as a cutback runner and a passer. For eight straight seasons from 1952-58, Gifford threw at least one touchdown pass. He finished his 12-year career with 29 completions on 63 attempts, including 14 TDs.
 
Once Lombardi became head coach of Green Bay in 1959, he used Paul Hornung in a similar role. Hornung had won the Heisman Trophy in 1956 as a split-T quarterback at Notre Dame, and his conversion to halfback helped propel the Packers on their run of five NFL titles in nine years. During his first three seasons under Lombardi, Hornung threw five touchdown passes via the halfback option.
 
In the modern era, running backs who toss passes are much more the exception than the rule. Here's a look at the lifetime stats of the best "throwing" running backs since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970:
 
Running Back
Team(s)
Comp.
Att.
Pct.
Yards
TDs
INTs
Rating
Walter Payton
Bears
11
34
32.4
331
8
6
69.6
Marcus Allen
Raiders, Chiefs
12
27
44.4
282
6
1
106.8
Greg Pruitt
Browns, Raiders
8
19
42.1
182
6
2
77.1
Keith Byars
Eagles, Dolphins
6
13
46.2
119
6
1
86.2
Andy Johnson
Patriots
7
13
53.8
194
4
1
106.6
Willard Harrell
Packers, Cardinals
6
12
50.0
144
4
1
98.6
Chuck Muncie
Saints, Chargers
4
7
57.1
126
4
0
141.4
Dalton Hilliard
Saints
4
7
57.1
114
4
0
141.4
Dave Meggett
Giants, Patriots
4
8
50.0
114
4
0
135.4
LaDainian Tomlinson
Chargers
5
6
83.3
106
4
0
158.3
 
Setting the standard for this group is the late, great Walter Payton, who is tops in attempts, yards and touchdowns. He was a multidimensional threat in the Chicago backfield long before the arrival of the jiggling gimmick known as William "Refrigerator" Perry. In 1983 and '84, Payton threw five touchdown passes, the best two-season stretch of any running back in the last 35 years.
 
The modern record for passing TDs by a running back in one season is four. It was set in 1981 by New England's Andy Johnson and matched by Philly's Keith Byars in 1990. Tomlinson still has eight games remaining to tie or surpass that mark.
 
In Week Six, Tomlinson became the first running back to record multiple touchdown passes in a single season since Marcus Allen threw for two scores with the Chiefs in 1997. Allen's passing prowess is not surprising when you consider that he played quarterback in high school and likely possesses "QBDNA," a phenomenon discussed here previously. Damon Allen, Marcus's younger brother, holds virtually every career passing record in the Canadian Football League, and he led the Toronto Argonauts to a Grey Cup victory in 2004 at the age of 41.
 
What Tomlinson lacks in volume, he more than makes up for in efficiency. He has a perfect passer rating of 158.3, and his 83.3 completion percentage is easily the highest for modern-day running backs. The game has rarely seen such an all-around talent.
 
No matter how much things change in the NFL, there will always be a prominent place in the backfield for someone like LaDainian Tomlinson. Playing with pride and passion never goes out of fashion.

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