Emmitt Smith spent most of his career chasing his childhood hero, Walter Payton, up the all-time leading rushers list; that he caught up to Payton, in 2002, seemed only right, a fitting end to a storybook career. But LaDainian Tomlinson's release yesterday by the San Diego Chargers serves as a reminder that Smith's story--namely his sustained effectiveness as an NFL running back--was indeed an extreme rarity.
One could make the argument that, at the height of their respective careers, Tomlinson was every bit as good as Smith. The difference between the two--and really, Smith and most elite running backs in general--is the former Cowboy's ability to remain at such a high level year-in and year-out. Where Smith's career wound down gradually, Tomlinson's seemed to hit a wall; fittingly enough, one that accompanied his 30th birthday.
After eight straight 1,000-yard seasons, Tomlinson averaged an anemic 3.3 yards per carry in 2009 on his way to 730 yards rushing. These numbers are lower than any season total of Smith's career, discounting a 2003 season with the Cardinals, in which he only played in 10 games due to a shoulder injury.
In his final season in 2004--with little left in the tank and behind a sub-par Cardinals' line--Smith posted 937 yards, 3.5 yards per carry and nine touchdowns; not bad for a guy who was all but forgotten as an active player by this point.
Much like Smith, Tomlinson has spent his career chasing his childhood hero--who just happened to be Emmitt Smith. Also like Smith, though, his departure from the team by whom he was drafted will ineluctably signal the beginning of the end for Tomlinson.
The native Texan, who seemed destined for so much more only a few years ago, will continue in the footsteps of his hero, however. After a few years spent in some other NFL city (or cities), don't be surprised if Tomlinson signs a one-day contract, allowing him to retire a Charger, much as Smith did with the Cowboys. And, certainly, don't be surprised when Tomlinson gets the call to join Smith, Payton and the rest in Canton.