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Can LaDainian Tomlinson Fill Thomas Jones' Shoes?

Lets move off the contract talk this week and take a look at RB LaDainian Tomlinsonís ability to replace the departed Thomas Jones. Jones became a relatively popular figure in NY the last two seasons, putting up big numbers and reportedly being the guy that really pushed the team in the locker room last season. Jones was either let go as a salary dump or because he looked very slow at the end of the season. Either way it was not a popular move. The Jets replaced him with Tomlinson, a big name player whose numbers have been on a steady decline for two seasons. There are many people who say Tomlinson is finished as a player and the reports from minicamp more or less said he showed very little to make one think this would be a renaissance season for him at the age of 31. Can he really replace what Jones would have brought to the team this season?

If the expectation is to replace 1,400 yards the answer is clearly no, but the expectation for Jones would have never been to gain 1,400 yards in 2010 either. The Jets had already begun the shift from Jones to Shonn Greene at the end of last season and Jonesí carries would have been greatly reduced had he been here this season. The spots where the Jets would have likely used Jones the most are inside the red zone and inside their own 35 yard line. Jones rarely fumbles, having only lost one in his three year Jets career, making him the safer option in those situations. He also seemed to develop a knack for the end zone in the last two years here. Outside of those spots Jones was probably going to be a player that would spell Greene in the middle of the field maybe once every three or four series. So I think its fair to say that we are not replacing a guy that is going to carry the ball 300 times.

First letís look at yards per carry for the two players. Tomlinson last season only averaged 3.27 YPC compared to Jonesí 4.23 regular season average. Taking into account strength of schedule, Tomlinson averaged 24% less yards than his opponents allowed per carry. Surprisingly Jones was also below average in this category as well, but only by 3.5%, which is significantly better than Tomlinson. The two players were nearly equivalent in first downs per attempt. Jones was 15.5% below average while Tomlinson was 17.9% below the average. The one category where Tomlinson far surpassed Jones was in touchdowns. Both were excellent with Jones 33.7% above average and Tomlinson a ridiculous 74.8% above average.

A quick analysis basically says that Tomlinson is a more than good enough replacement for Jones inside the red zone, but gives the team no aid anywhere else on the field. Clearly the Jets made a mistake considering Tomlinson runs for almost 1 less YPC than Jones. But lets dig a little bit deeper by looking into the big play numbers of the two. Tomlinson did not breaks big plays in 2009. He was only credited with 3 plays of more than 20 yards last year and none of 40 yards or more. His 20 yard numbers were 50% below the average for his schedule. Jones, on the other hand, broke off 8 big runs, two of which were more than 40 yards. The total yards gained by Jones in the big play category were 329 yards.

The question is how much of Jonesí numbers were attributed to the Jets offensive scheme and line and how much was simply attributed to Jones. Jones was never looked at as a big play runner, yet in his last two seasons with the Jets he rattled off 14 runs of 20 or more yards and 3 runs of 40 or more. In the 8 seasons prior to 2008, Jones totaled 26 and 5, with almost half of the 20 yard runs coming in 2005. That really speaks volumes about the job that offensive line coach Bill Callahan has done with the blocking schemes as well as the impact the signings of RT Damien Woody and LG Alan Faneca had on the team. In the year before Callahan and the offensive line reinforcements arrived, Jones only gained 62 big play yards. Jonesí post Callahan career represented a 44% increase in 20 yard plays per attempt and a 60% increase in 40 yard plays per attempt. If you remove Jones best and worst seasons from the list, the 20 yard plays actually represent a 113% increase over Jones norms with a 48% increase in the 40 yard plays. Any way you slice it, the numbers really slant towards giving the team itself a ton of credit for the big yardage totals Jones has enjoyed the last two seasons. If we take the big play category out of both players numbers, the actual on field performance is much closer between Tomlinson and Jones. Minus the big play numbers, Jones averaged 3.32 YPC, Tomlinson 2.97 YPC. That is significantly closer than what one would think by just looking at Jones overall numbers with those of Tomlinson and the signing no longer looks crazy.

Looking at those numbers begs the question why cant Tomlinson also be expected to improve running in this offense compared to his old offense in San Diego. Unlike Jones, Tomlinson has been known as a big play guy in the past. Last season was the first year of his career he did not rattle off a 40 yard run and his previous low in the 20+ category was 6. Before Callahan arrived in NY, Jonesí numbers were showing signs of decline, just like Tomlinsonís. At the age of 30 Jones had the best years of his career on this team. Unless Tomlinson has nothing left in the tank there is no reason to think he will not greatly benefit from the scheme, coaching, and player personnel that is in New York.

There really is no reason to believe that Tomlinson canít fill what Jonesí role would have been in 2010. The real difference between the two is only about 0.3 YPC in the type of plays the Jets would have used Jones in, and Jones had the benefit of running behind one of the best lines in the NFL while Tomlinson did not. It is not a real giant leap of faith to imagine that extra 0.3 YPC can be made up by simply switching teams. Tomlinson is as good of a player around the end zone as Jones was and will fit in perfectly in that role. Jones was not going to be expected to pull out all the big plays this year, and it is reasonable to assume that, by changing clubs Tomlinson, will put up just as many big plays as Jones would have. In looking at the stats this way you can see why Mike Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan really saw this as a far better option considering the price tag. If Tomlinson can benefit from Callahan and the linemen the way Jones did, he just may sneak past that 1,000 yard mark again before calling it a career.

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