KIRKLAND – All Shaun Alexander could do was defer.
The best running back in the NFL?
“Right now, LaDainian,” Alexander said without hesitation when that question was posed to him Thursday afternoon. “There’s no doubt about it.”
That would be San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson, who is the Seattle Seahawks’ most challenging obstacle heading into Sunday’s game against the Chargers and is also the man who’s starring in the role Shaun Alexander played for much of 2005.
Last season, Alexander had a rushing title, a touchdown record and an NFL most-valuable-player trophy. All of those are likely to be Tomlinson’s this time around.
“Last year it was me, and a couple years ago it was Priest (Holmes) and before that it was Marshall Faulk,” Alexander said. “That’s the good thing about running backs. You get a Tomlinson and a good team, and they all get into a groove, and anything can happen.”
While Tomlinson’s career has gradually built toward this point – he has already been to three Pro Bowls in five NFL seasons – Alexander’s fall from grace has been sudden.
Due in large part to a foot injury that has cost him six games, Alexander has struggled to get into a groove this year. Even after what was supposed to be his breakout game, a 201-yard effort against Green Bay on Nov. 27, Alexander has fallen back into mediocrity.
He’s averaging just 3.4 yards per carry (1.7 yards below last year’s clip) and has 664 yards in eight starts (904 yards fewer than he had with two games left in the 2005 season).
And it’s not all because of the injury.
“As a unit, we haven’t clicked – individually or collectively – the way we did last year,” running backs coach Stump Mitchell said. “When Shaun came back (on Nov. 19) 1,000 yards was still his goal because he had enough games (left to get there). So in some instances, he was probably pressing or trying to make more out of things than was actually there.”
That was especially apparent in the Dec. 10 Arizona game, when Alexander had just 76 yards on 22 carries. He was stopped behind the line of scrimmage three times in that game, and had another two carries go for no gain.
“He probably tried a little too hard,” Mitchell said. “And there might have been a couple other games where he should have just stayed with it instead of trying to create some things.
“Shaun is who he is. He’s gone from 1,400 to 1,600 to 1,800 yards (over the past three seasons), so he’s made some great decisions. But he also makes, every now and then, some not-so-great decisions.”
Two areas where Alexander has been uncharacteristically mediocre this season have been in short-yardage situations and fumbling.
After going 16-for-16 converting third-and-1 plays last season, Alexander is 0-for-2 in the same short-yardage situations this year.
He’s also fumbled five times, which matches his career high for a season. What makes that number more alarming is that he’s done it in just eight games.
“Football is just football,” said Alexander, who has fumbled seven times in his past 12 games, including the 2005 postseason. “You are playing hard, and they are playing hard, and I think that is just the part of paying attention to the little things.”
Alexander fumbled in each of the past two games, yet coach Mike Holmgren does not see it as a problem.
“Over the course of his career, I’ve never thought of him as a fumbler. I don’t worry about that too much,” Holmgren said. “Now, I worry about it at the time and I get a little upset at the time, but he is not a fumbler.”
As for his significant drop in statistics, Alexander said Thursday that two major factors have been at play. One, the offensive chemistry has taken longer than expected to develop. Second, and even more obvious, the foot injury has slowed him down.
But Alexander also said Thursday that, for the first time since Week 3, he is no longer using a bone stimulation machine to help in the healing process.
“This has been a very good week for me,” he said. “This is the best I have felt the whole time.”
Fullback Mack Strong said that the effects of Alexander’s injury can’t be overstated.
“If Shaun doesn’t get injured this year, he would be having a Pro Bowl year,” he said.
With just two weeks left in the regular season, Alexander doesn’t have much time to get back up to the Pro Bowl level. But he believes this might be the week.
“I think that this has been the best week of practice that we have had,” he said, “so hopefully we will get to play like we had last year. … I feel like I’m finally in my groove.”