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Original Issue

What Went Wrong?

Most of the running backs at the top of this year's fantasy drafts were major letdowns. Here's why, and what you can learn from it

Having run for aleague-high 1,815 yards last year, Chargers All-Pro LaDainian Tomlinsonexpected to pick up this season right where he had left off. But in his firsttwo 2007 games he was held to 25 yards rushing by the Bears and43 yards by the Patriots. Worse, he averaged just 1.9 yards percarry.

In Kansas City, Larry Johnson was undergoing similar travails. After havingfinished last season a hair behind Tomlinson in the race for the rushing title,LJ opened this year with 43 yards against Houston and 55 against Chicago.It was the worst two-week total of his career as a starter and just the thirdtime that he went back-to-back games without hitting the century mark.

When asked earlierthis season about the slow starts, Johnson--who along with Tomlinson was a topfour pick in most fantasy leagues--plopped onto a folding chair in front of hislocker, clasped his hands behind his head, extended his legs and basically saidthat everyone needed to take a deep breath and relax.

"It's funnythat me and LaDainian are the slowest ones getting out of the gate," hesaid. "Teams are game-planning us more and more. LaDainian winning MVP lastyear, that's a target on his back early in the season. Same thing with merunning for [almost] 1,800 yards. Guys are going to game-plan for you initiallyto see what you're all about, and then when you get further into the season,they're not going to be putting eight men and nine men in the box anymore,because now guys [on losing teams] are worrying about staying healthy, guys areworrying about getting through the season. It gets cold.

"It's kind oflike how defenses get hyped the first 10 minutes of a game and then fadeoff for the last three quarters," LJ continued. "Defenses always playhard at the start of the season, then lose some of that. There's no reason topanic. It'll start to pick up."

For Johnson, itnever really did--and then he went out in Week 9 against Green Bay with a footinjury. He is all too typical. For an unusually large number of the top backsfrom this year's fantasy draft, the results have ranged from disappointing tomiserable. Entering 2007's 14th week, eight of the nine top returning rushersfrom last season were averaging fewer yards per game than they did in '06. Fivehave seen their averages fall by at least 20 yards a game, and three ofthese have had drop-offs of 38 or more. Tomlinson is down from 113.4 yardsa game to 87.4; Johnson, from 111.8 to 69.9; San Francisco's Frank Gore, from105.9 to 64.8; St. Louis's Steven Jackson, from 95.5 to 78.5; and Cincinnati'sRudi Johnson, from 81.8 to 43.2. Seattle's Shaun Alexander, a top pick whowasn't in the top 10 last year with his injuries, fell from 89.6 to61.9.

Other top backswho avoided big drop-offs have had other woes. Denver's Travis Henry, at 86.5yards per game, was averaging 7.9 fewer yards than he did last year inTennessee--but he missed four games this season due to injury. He came backthis week, with 49 yards, but is fighting a possible season-ending leaguesuspension. Pittsburgh's Willie Parker had the smallest loss of any top 10back, at 2.3 yards per game, but his problem is that he can't get into the endzone: After scoring 16 touchdowns in 2006, Parker has two this year.

The reasons thesebacks have struggled are as varied as the players themselves. Some have battledinjuries or are playing on offenses that have been hampered by injuries,particularly along the offensive line. Others are working under newcoordinators or are on new teams. And a few have consistently faced stackeddefenses because their teams' passing games lack zip. "In our case, we hadto go with younger receivers after Eddie Kennison [hamstring] went down,"says Chiefs guard Brian Waters, explaining Kansas City's aerial failures."And the Chargers have young receivers with Keenan McCardell gone."(San Diego did pick up Chris Chambers from Miami at the trade deadline.)"When things like that happen," Waters adds, "you have to be asclose to perfect as possible to make the running game go."

In a normal year,time generally is on the side of top running backs. Tomlinson, Larry Johnsonand Gore--the league's top three rushers last season--all started slowly in2006 but rallied. Tomlinson ran for 100 yards once in his first six games,then surpassed that total in each of his next nine, four times running for 170or more. Johnson reached 100 yards twice in his first five games, whichincluded back-to-back outings with nets of 36 and 26 yards, but thenreeled off 120 yards or more in eight of his final 11 games. And Goreran for 100 yards three times in his first eight games but surpassed thattotal in six of his final eight, including a franchise-record 212 againstSeattle.

But past themidway point this year most players had not regained their stride. Gore andJohnson have been crippled by their clubs being among the league leaders inpercentage of three-and-out possessions: San Francisco is first at 32.5, KansasCity second at 30.6. (Of course, the big backs' failures may have something todo with those feeble figures.) Johnson lost a Pro Bowl-caliber blocker,guard Will Shields, to retirement for the second time in as many seasons.(Tackle Willie Roaf left the team in 2006.) Further limiting Johnson's touches,the Chiefs fell behind early in some games and were forced to throw theball.

Like Johnson, Gorehas been banged up: The third-year pro broke a bone in his hand in trainingcamp and was recently slowed by an ankle injury. He also has been hurt byinconsistent play along the line and a weak passing game. Under first-yearcoordinator Jim Hostler the 49ers have yet to throw for more than 256 yards ina game, and in eight games they failed to break 200.

Tomlinson, too,has been handcuffed by an offense in transition. LT has a new play-caller incoach Norv Turner, who wants to balance the offense by developing quarterbackPhilip Rivers and the passing game. But Rivers has too often failed to makedefenses pay for stacking the box against the run.

Waters offers aprescription for ailing running games that would be appreciated by many ofthese backs' owners: Just keep pounding the ball. "You can talk about allsorts of things for why a running game is successful," he says. "One ofthe big things is that you've just got to stick with it, even when it doesn'tlook good. If you look at the playoff teams from last year, they were allalmost like 70 percent on third-and-four or less. Well, to get into thosesituations, you have to have positive plays, and you're more likely to havepositive plays with a run play than a pass play. If you stay with it, thingshave a way of working out."

This year, that'seasy for him to say.

FANTASY OWNERSlove to get their hands on a workhorse back, the kind who gets the ball handedto him over and over, week in and week out. But the danger with these workhorsebacks is that they tend to wear down: The player who wins the league title foryou one year may lose it for you the next, when the pounding catches up withhim.

Although this yearis a drastic example, the following chart details how backs who led the leaguein carries will, on average, fall off in production the following year. (Thedrop would be even larger if we hadn't discounted Ricky Williams's quitting onthe Dolphins in 2004 after carrying the ball a league-high 392 times in '03.)Behind these averages are some startling details: Only four times (in 21possible chances) did a player in the top three in carries gain more yards thefollowing year: LaDainian Tomlinson in '02 and '03, and Rudi Johnson and ShaunAlexander in '05. Tomlinson was 23 and 24 when he bettered his previous season,Johnson was 26, and Alexander was 28. No back older than 28 had gained moreyards after being in the top three in carries the previous year.