Analyzing Tomlinson's career, Saints' appeal, Banks' comeback
LaDainian Tomlinson a close second to Marshall Faulk among top modern-era RBs
Public opinion will be against the NFL until they provide evidence in bounty case
Wrongly imprisoned Brian Banks discusses his ongoing attempt to make a team
Much news for what's normally a sleepy Monday in June -- bounty appeals today in New York, for instance -- but let's start the last Monday column before I take my summer break with some numbers from the amazing career of LaDainian Tomlinson, who will announce his retirement today in San Diego.
Tomlinson deserves a hand from all of us, and he'll deserve a gold jacket in six years.
Who do we consider the best all-purpose backs of the last 30 years? Well, three players prominent in the conversation are Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk and Tomlinson. I'll take Tomlinson in history over Allen and argue that Tomlinson and Faulk should be 1 and 1a as the most versatile modern backs.
Tomlinson vs. Allen. Allen started 15 games or more seven times in his career. In those seven seasons, he totaled 10,049 rushing-receiving yards and 78 touchdowns. In the first seven seasons of Tomlinson's career, he totaled 14,025 rushing-receiving yards ... with 51 more touchdowns. But the more impressive comparison, I believe, is with Faulk, the 2011 first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Tomlinson vs. Faulk. I picked out the best seven years of Faulk's illustrious career in Indianapolis and St. Louis, and lined up the numbers against the first seven years of Tomlinson's football life, when he was at his peak. (The Faulk numbers don't include a sub-par third season in Indianapolis. I wanted to take the prime of Tomlinson's career and compare it to the best of a first-ballot Canton performer.
|Total Rushing/Receiving Yards|
|* Team's record during the seven years of analysis|
Tomlinson, by the way, will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.
Top five versatile runners of the last 30 years? (Walter Payton not included, because seven of his 13 seasons came before 1982.) My list:
1. Faulk. Super Bowl win helps -- plus the Super Bowl that New England based its entire game plan on stopping him.
2. Tomlinson. But it's very, very close.
3. Thurman Thomas. His prime wasn't quite as productive as Tomlinson's, but great anyway.
4. Darren Sproles. State of the art today, and perfect in Saints offense.
5. Marcus Allen. Strange to put him behind Sproles, but Allen wasn't as explosive.
I expect some angry grievers today on Park Avenue in New York.
It's clear the suspended players and their representatives are not going to agree with the NFL's version of what happened over the last three years in the Saints' defensive team meetings. The NFL claims it has clear evidence that there was a bounty system in place, with players being offered money for performance-related accomplishments and for trying to knock foes out of games.
Remember: The NFL doesn't have to have proof of bounty money being paid to a defensive player for intentionally injuring an opponent, or for knocking an opponent out of a game, whether intentional or not. The NFL has to show that a bounty was offered. That's it.
But until the NFL shows that proof, there will be significant skepticism that it has enough evidence to throw Jonathan Vilma out of the game for a full season, and to suspend three Saints from the 2009 season for lesser periods. I question whether the league will show evidence today, in the face of increasing pressure to do so.
Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsburg, claimed Friday that the evidence he received was specious and didn't prove the NFL's claim that Vilma either offered or paid $10,000 during the '09 playoffs to knock out Kurt Warner or Brett Favre from playoff games. We'll see what emerges today.
But the fact that the NFL didn't produce the clear evidence Friday in advance of today's grievance hearing in the league office gave the players the ammo they needed in the court of public opinion. It's all well and good for Roger Goodell, league counsel Jeff Pash and the former high-profile prosecutor the NFL retained, Mary Jo White, to believe in the strength of the league's case against the players. If it's so strong, the league will have to show its cards at some point, or the public will simply believe the league oversold the story and overcharged the players.
Last week in Montana, I asked Goodell what he thinks the legacy of this bounty scandal will be. I didn't run his answer in my column because it didn't break new ground. But this is what he said: "I think what the bounty legacy will be is that it's not part of football. There's a rule that prohibits it. We obviously had a violation of it. We found it, dealt with it aggressively, and I don't think it will happen again. I think it will help in that continuing effort to create the culture of safety that we want. I hope by the actions that have been taken here that the fact that we discovered it, and the fact that we penalized it with unprecedented discipline, and by the focus that it's gotten, that people understand not to engage in that.''
I think whether the NFL names names or not, witness corroboration of the bounty program is going to have to come out at some point. The NFL surely wants to protect the whistleblowers, but there's a way to do that. And there's a way for insiders like suspended former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- who has been public in saying he was wrong to engage in a pay-for-performance system with the Saints -- to buttress the NFL's case. Williams says he'll do what the league asks in order to get back in the game and to repair the damage from this. If so, he should tell what he knows.
The NFL can't just say, "Trust us on this.'' Too many lives, too many reputations, are on the line here for that.
The Brian Banks Story: Coming to a stadium near you?
On Friday, I spent an hour on the phone with Brian Banks, who, as one of the best high school football prospects in the country in 2002, at age 16, was convicted of raping a girl in a stairwell at their high school in Long Beach, Calif. Though there was never any physical DNA evidence connecting Banks to the crime, his attorney convinced him he could go to jail for decades, not years, if he pleaded not guilty and went to trial. Banks took a plea deal and went to prison for five years and two months, then served almost five more years under a form of near-house arrest before the girl recanted her story. On May 24, a judge set Banks free.
Today, Banks is in Santa Clara, Calif., trying out for the San Francisco 49ers in a three-day rookie minicamp as an inside linebacker and special teams player. This comes on the heels of tryouts with the Chiefs and Chargers, and a two-day minicamp trial with the Seahawks last week. It's truly an amazing story, and will be even more amazing if one of the teams offers him an invitation to training camp as a member of the 90-man roster. Making a team, or even a practice squad? Hollywood stuff. Beyond Hollywood.
"I went from going to sleep with a GPS tracking device on my ankle one day, to flying around to NFL facilities just days later,'' he said. "It's a lot to take in. Amazing. Huge. HUGE. It's like winning the Super Bowl and going to Disney World -- times 10. That's what's happened to my life.''
What impressed me so much about Banks is how bright and engaging he is despite spending 10 formative years of his life away from formal education, and how he's not bitter. How can someone who spent five years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and then five more as a registered sex offender with a GPS ankle bracelet that he couldn't take off, not be bitter?
"I like to tell the story of a little kid who has a dirty room,'' Banks told me. "His mother tells him to clean the room. He says no, and he throws a tantrum. When he stops screaming, the room's still dirty, and he's still got to clean it. When I got to prison, of course I was mad. I didn't understand why the police didn't do a better job investigating the case, and why someone who clearly was not guilty could be put away like that. But I realized the more I thought that way, it kept me stagnant. I was becoming the label they tried to put on me. I made a vow to myself: No matter what happened, no matter what label they put on me, I knew who I was, and I wasn't going to let them turn me into something I wasn't.''
A teacher at one of his juvenile centers before prison, Jerome Johnson, stood in front of a class of kids in trouble and challenged them to funnel their anger into positive energy. "Maybe I was the only one who listened,'' Banks said. "I don't know. But I developed a thirst for understanding life and culture and the wider world. I wanted to improve myself. Mr. Johnson helped me challenge my brain and ask myself: 'What is my purpose?' ''
I asked Banks: "Isn't prison tough on sex offenders? How'd you survive?''
"I am a very honest person,'' he said. "Ask those who know me. But I lied about why I was in there. That's the way I survived. Three things that there's zero tolerance for in prison -- child molesters, rapists, thieves. So I just told everybody I was in prison for a home invasion. I took the rap for a guy because I wouldn't snitch on him, and through the grace of God, I never got found out.''
Though Banks played a season of junior college football in Long Beach in 2007 when he got out of jail, provisions of his parole soon changed. He had to stay closer to his home in Los Angeles, and he had to wear the ankle bracelet. He stopped thinking about playing football. And then, three days after he was declared innocent in May, his cell phone rang. The phone had been ringing steadily, and Banks didn't answer. A minute later, the same 213 area code number came up on his caller ID. Banks answered it.
"I'm looking for a linebacker,'' said a voice he didn't recognize. "Know where I can find one?''
"Who is this?'' Banks said.
"Coach Carroll,'' Pete Carroll, who'd once recruited Banks to go to USC, said.
Banks almost melted. Couldn't believe it. Carroll said he remembered him well, offered him a tryout in Seattle, and said he'd get no special favors. Within days, the Chiefs called. And San Diego. And San Francisco, and Minnesota and Washington.
"I know how long I've been away,'' Banks said. "I know the odds. I'm going to give this 150 percent, and if it doesn't happen, I will walk away with a huge smile on my face. The way I look at it, I've already won by securing my freedom.''
At Seahawks camp last week, linebackers coach Ken Norton got all over Banks a couple of times. "Which I so appreciated,'' said Banks, laughing. "I appreciate not being carried. I don't want to be a special case. Practicing with the Seahawks is something I'll cherish for the rest of my life.''
For Banks to have a chance, he has to learn to turn and run and cover better; when he was in high school, his size and athleticism made up for any technical deficiencies. But there are a lot of good 6-2 ˝, 239-pound inside 'backers who can cover tight ends and running backs. Carroll is giving Banks a month -- and another team or two may do the same -- to get in better shape to see if he might be able to be better than one of the inside linebacker candidates Seattle already has. That is, unless San Francisco beats Seattle to the punch and signs him this week. It's more likely Banks will work tirelessly over the next month to give his best shot in a final pre-training-camp trial to earn one of 90 roster spots on some team.
"Football is a passion for me, and I love it dearly,'' he said. "But it does not define me. If I don't make it, I'm still free. I'm free. I've got my freedom back.''
Jim McMahon's a burr in the NFL's saddle again.
During practices leading up to Super Bowl XX in New Orleans 26 years ago, Jim McMahon once mooned a news helicopter. Once angry with commissioner Pete Rozelle for fining him $5,000 for wearing a headband with the "adidas'' logo on it, McMahon got a plain white headband, wrote "ROZELLE'' in block letters, and wore it in a game. Now he's one of the estimated 2,500 former players or spouses of late former players suing the league for not doing enough to protect players from head trauma and concussions.
McMahon's 52 now. He's been outspoken that the league needs to take better care of former players, and he worries that years of pounding from being a football player are beginning to show up in him every day. "I'll have little lapses,'' he said from his Arizona home Saturday. "I'll walk into a room and forget why I went in there. That's becoming more frequent. I forget to call people back, and they'll ask, 'Why didn't you call me?' I don't know. I forgot they called. The brain is not meant to take the kind of pounding it has to take in football.''
He thinks he has a "little lapse'' once a day. "Once in a while, I get a severe pain in my head,'' he said. "Like someone stuck an ice pick in my head. The head was never discussed when I played, and a lot of guys are worse off than I am. Friends of mine in the game, some of them don't even know me anymore. They deserve a better quality of life. That's what this is about.''
Count McMahon among those who thinks the NFL should consider having players play without facemasks. "The helmets are so good now, and guys think they can just hit so hard without hurting themselves,'' he said. "What is the solution? I don't know. But the guys in Australian Rules Football are pretty rugged, and they don't wear facemasks. They know they have to protect themselves.''
As with two other players I've reached who have attached their names to the various suits, McMahon feels the most important thing about this case is having medical care available -- and covered by the NFL -- when or if the time comes that players need medical or mental health care. Spitballing these complex cases, if the NFL can't get them dismissed, the settlement may come when long-retired players are assured that their families won't be left to take care of them without sufficient insurance.
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