Tomlinson or Westbrook?



So LaDainian Tomlinson, one of the best backs in the history of the NFL, is coming to Minnesota for a visit tomorrow.  If things work out Tomlinson could be a Viking by the weekend, officially putting some much needed ‘holy crap!’ effect into the Vikings off-season.  It’s a given that the Vikings need to find a replacement for Chester Taylor, now a member of the Flying Cutlers Chicago Bears, and here at DN, and Viking fandom in general, we’ve focused on two free agents widely considered the be the two top guys to do that:  the aforementioned Mr. Tomlinson, and Brian Westbrook, the mayor of Concussionville, PA.  For the uninformed, Concussionville is right down the road from Margaritaville, which is arguably a suburb of Paternoville.  Anyhow, I want to take the next few minutes comparing Westbrook and Tomlinson, and try to deduce which guy might be the best fit for the Vikings.  After the jump, of course.

 

Tomlinson vs. Westbrook, the Tale of the Tape

Player

Westbrook

Tomlinson

Years

8

9

Games

128

144

Games Played

107

141

% Games Played

83.5

98

Rush attempts

1,308

2,880

Rush yards

5,995

12,490

Rush average

4.6

4.3

Receptions

426

530

Receiving Yards

3,790

3,995

Receiving Average

8.9

7.7

Rush TD

71

138

Rec TD

29

15

Age

31

31

AV*

15, 9

17,14

 

                                              

 

*AV is a statistic developed by pro-football-reference.com to determine approximate value, or in other words, a comparative number to see who had the better season.  It’s a complicated formula taking just about every factor possible into consideration, but basically, the higher the number, the better the season one guy had over another, comparatively speaking.  The values are from 2007 and 2008, as there is no number for either player for the 2009 season.  Read about it here.  I don’t view it as a be-all, end-all comparison, and neither does the creator.  It’s just another measurement, subject for debate and interpretation.   A football sabremetric stat, if you will. 

 

I think comparing both the rushing and receiving yardage totals is a bit of a canard.  For a good part of LT’s career, he played under Marty Schottenheimer, who makes Brad Childress look exciting and innovative when it comes to calling an offense.  Andy Reid, on the other hand, removed the section called ‘running plays’ from the Eagles playbook from 2002-2005.  I put the numbers up there though, because they both have impressive bodies of work throughout their careers, and they are worth noting.  I look at a few telling stats; rush attempts, average number of yards per rush, and the average number of yards per reception.  When looking at those, a few things stand out.  For one, it’s pretty much a wash in average yards per carry over the length of their careers, although LT has seen an alarming drop in his rushing average, steadily decreasing from a ridiculous 5.2 in 2006 to 3.8 in ’08, and 3.3 in ‘09.  Brian Westbrook has been at or above 4.0 yards per carry his entire career, actually improving from 4.0 in 2008 to 4.5 in 2009.  I think that goes to the punishment LT has taken compared to Westbrook—close to 2,900 carries for LT as opposed to 1,300 for BW, or less than half the amount of Tomlinson’s.  Ouch.  Tomlinson has absorbed a lot more blows than Westbrook, and has a lot of mileage on the tires.  There are only a handful of backs that excelled past the age of 30 but neither LT or Brian Westbrook will be asked to be the star of the offense, which is a significant point that was the main argument of the SI column referenced.  

 

Both guys are over 30, and although Tomlinson has taken more punishment than Westbrook, they’ve both got a lot of miles.  But when you look a little deeper into the rushing numbers in San Diego last season, no one was particularly effective in running the ball.  The other featured back, Darren Sproles, averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, and as a team San Diego was 31st in rushing yards and 32nd in rush yards per attempt.  Running backs need to have run blockers in front of them, and a case can be made that Sproles and Tomlinson didn’t.

 

Westbrook has receiving statistics that are actually better than LT’s, but again, total numbers are skewed by offensive philosophies.  That said, a couple more things stand out.  Tomlinson has over 100 more career receptions than Westbrook, and barely over 100 more yards, which means Westbrook’s receiving average is significantly higher than LT, by over a yard per reception.  In the West Coast/KAOALABFRI (that would be the Kick Ass Offense As Long As Brett Favre Runs It) a running back that can get yards on a short swing pass out of the backfield is crucial to the success of said offense.  That is where Brian Westbrook, in my opinion, would be better served than a LaDainian Tomlinson.  But Tomlinson has had, and could have, success as a third down guy as well; it’s not as if catching a pass was a foreign concept for him.  However, advantage goes to Westbrook on this.

 

Finally, injuries must be factored in when making a decision.  Westbrook has played in just over 83% of his team’s games throughout his career, and was sidelined for half the season last year due to multiple concussions.  Tomlinson, beating and all, has answered the bell 98% of the time, a remarkable number in this day and age.  This is where I think the argument weeds itself out.  Yes, Brian Westbrook is better catching the ball out of the backfield, but can you count on him to make it through a 16 game schedule?  Unfortunately, I think the answer is no, especially when you consider  the type of injury he had, the history he has with concussions, and the susceptibility that he will probably get another one.  Tomlinson will be a constant in the backfield, and since he won’t be the focal point of the offense, less wear and tear on his body could mean more productivity in terms of average yards per play.  

There have been some notable exceptions to the ‘over 30 rule’ for NFL running backs.  Ricky Williams of Miami had a very productive 2009 season while splitting time with Ronnie Brown, as did Thomas Jones of the JetsLarry Johnson, though, seems to be the best comparison to Tomlinson in terms of punishment and then use by a new team, albeit a very small sample size.  If anyone has any other comparisons, I'd love to see them.  When signed by Cincinnati, Johnson, who absorbed a pounding similar to Tomlinson from 2005-2006, and has more of an injury history, was pretty much considered washed up.  In Kansas City his numbers were fairly atrocious from 2007 through the time of his release, but again, he was asked to be the focal point of the offense.  When he came to Cincinnati, he averaged 4.4 yards a carry over 7 games, not bad at all.  When used situationally, he was effective. 

Is it a given that either Tomlinson or Westbrook will be signed by Minnesota?  No.  But they do need to replace Chester Taylor, and between the two, I think LaDainian Tomlinson, if used situationally, will be the better choice. 

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