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Johnson, Gore were great also-rans

Nobody can argue that San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson is the runaway choice for fantasy football player of the year.

Clear-cut, hands-down, no-doubter, M&M-er, baby! L.T. is No. 1. Case closed.

But other running backs had amazing seasons that may have been overshadowed by Tomlinson's incredible campaign that produced an NFL-record 31 touchdowns plus a league-high 1,815 rushing yards. He even threw for two more scores.

If your roster included Kansas City's Larry Johnson or San Francisco's Frank Gore, running back was definitely not your beast of burden.

Johnson, who many fantasy prognosticators ranked No. 1 in the preseason, didn't disappoint with 1,789 rushing yards on a league-record 416 carries with 19 total TDs. Gore, who may have been the most pleasant surprise on the draft board, ranked third with 1,695 rushing yards but scored "only" nine times. And don't forget about Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, who shared time in the Jaguars backfield with Fred Taylor but still gained 941 yards on 166 carries with 16 total touchdowns, not to mention setting a rookie record by scoring in eight consecutive games.

It would only be natural to assume that Tomlinson led in all the crucial statistics for running backs. But that's not the case.

Not only did Johnson get the most touches, he had 11 100-yard games, one more than L.T. and two more than Gore.

Gore had the most receptions among the trio with 61 -- five more than L.T. and 15 more than Johnson -- as well as the highest average per carry at 5.4.

Tomlinson did the bulk of his damage during a torrid nine-game stretch from Oct. 29 through Christmas Eve, piling up 141.8 rushing yards per contest and 23 total TDs. He was a mere mortal the rest of the time. Does anybody even remember that L.T. endured what for him was a brutal five-game stretch early in the season, without a single triple-digit effort while rushing for a total of 342 yards? Neither Johnson nor Gore went more than two consecutive games without hitting the century mark.

The preseason hype surrounding Johnson was based mostly on the fact that in 2005 he started nine times after Priest Holmes went down with a neck injury and piled up 1,351 rushing yards and 16 TDs on 261 attempts. Over 16 games, that projected to 464 carries -- which would have bettered the previous single-season record by 54 -- with 2,402 yards and 28 TDs. Though Johnson fell more than 600 yards and nine TDs shy, nobody could accuse him of being a disappointment.

Johnson held his own head-to-head against L.T. in AFC West matchups. Tomlinson carried 40 times for 265 yards; Johnson had 47 attempts for 216 yards.

"I enjoy watching him [L.T.] because he is at the top of his game," Johnson told the San Diego Union-Tribune this season. "Every running back I go against, I like to see what they do or how they hold up during the game. Going against LaDainian is my biggest joy, biggest challenge, because he is the top guy in our division."

Tomlinson outgained Gore, 71-55, on Oct. 15 and Johnson outrushed Gore, 101-65, on Oct. 1. But Gore had some golden moments, too. In two games against Seattle's Shaun Alexander, Gore outgained last season's runaway fantasy player of the year, 356-110, including a 49ers franchise record 212 yards on 24 carries, in a 20-14 victory on Nov. 19.

For the 27-year-old Johnson, the only concern is whether the past season and a half's huge workload will take its toll in 2007. In his last 25 games, Johnson has averaged 27 carries and 125.6 yards rushing.

Backs who had the three busiest seasons in history, before Johnson came along this year, all had drop-offs in production the next season.

Atlanta's Jamal Anderson carried 410 times for 1,846 yards and 14 TDs in 1998 but suffered a season-ending knee injury on opening night against Dallas in '99 after just 19 carries for 59 yards. Two years and 1,214 rushing yards later his NFL career was over.

Tampa Bay's James Wilder had 407 rushing attempts for 1,544 yards and 13 scores in 1984, then followed up strong with 365 carries for 1,300 yards and 10 TDs the next year.

Eric Dickerson of the Los Angeles Rams carried 404 times for 1,821 yards and 11 TDs in 1986, then piled up 1,288 yards on 283 carries with six TDs the next year, when he was part of a blockbuster trade that sent him to the Indianapolis Colts. The players strike robbed Dickerson of three games in 1987 but he came back with 1,659 rushing yards in '88.


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