LaDainian Tomlinson is out to show that he has plenty of mileage left
Some visuals just take getting used to. It was that way with Brett Favre in purple, or Donovan McNabb in burgundy. And it’s that way with LaDainian Tomlinson in New York Jets green, a guy who for so long was synonymous with the San Diego Chargers.
For Tomlinson, it isn’t odd at all. He says he saw his road coming to an end in San Diego at least a couple of years ago.
“I’m not going to say I wasn’t happy, but I started to see my departure out of San Diego way before you guys did,” he told a reporter during a break between training-camp practices. “I could sense it. I started to make a little gripe about running the ball more, and people thought I was crazy. ‘Aw, LT’s complaining and whining.’ But that’s when I started to see what was going on.”
More on what Tomlinson thinks was going on in a moment. But he also conceded for the first time that he was stung by the recent comments of his former teammates, quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates, who zinged him a bit in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“I thought they were my guys,” Tomlinson said. “People always say, and my family has said it to me, that you know who your real friends are when you’re at your lowest point and you don’t have a job or whatever. And guys, they said what they felt, whether they were taking shots at me or really just saying what they felt needed to be said.”
The statements by Rivers and Gates were not overly critical, just very candid remarks from players who typically have gone out of their way to be respectful of Tomlinson and what he has accomplished.
Of not having the running back in camp, Rivers told the newspaper: “I don’t know how everyone feels or if they felt it. Maybe it was a little bit of relief. Maybe it’s a feeling of, ‘I can do a little more without wondering what he thinks.’ ”
According to Gates, “Sometimes you would get the sense that people felt bigger than the team. Not to say it was an issue, but we know it’s not an issue for sure now.”
Not so long ago, no one in the league was bigger than Tomlinson. He won the NFL rushing title in consecutive years (2006 and 2007) and in 2006 he was named the league’s most valuable player, set the single-season record with 28 rushing touchdowns and probably secured a spot in the Hall of Fame.
In the last two seasons, however, Tomlinson quickly went from exceptional to expendable. He has rushed for 100 yards in two of his last 35 games (including the playoffs), has seemed to go down easier with first contact and has lacked the familiar burst that marked the first six-plus years of his career. He became just another offensive weapon. The team grew to rely on undersized Darren Sproles in clutch situations and left Tomlinson on the sideline, an unthinkable decision a year or two earlier.
There were injuries along the offensive line, and that unit didn’t play as well last season as it had in the past, but few people anticipated such a sharp drop-off from the superstar running back.
Tomlinson, 31, shrugs off the notion that he might have simply hit a physical wall, as a lot of running backs do when they reach 30. He is convinced that the Chargers decided two years ago he wasn’t in their plans.
“Obviously, they had to start to build that team around Philip and get the guys they needed around him,” he said. “I didn’t fit that. That’s why I kind of found myself on the outside looking in, and looking for work after this past season.”
For his part, Tomlinson felt iced by Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith, and he said at his charity golf tournament in the spring that he would have a hard time retiring as a Charger if Smith is with the team at that point. In his interview with The Times this week, Tomlinson again implied that the deterioration in their relationship paved his way out of town.
“In my mind, I knew it was starting to come to an end and eventually it would happen where I would leave,” he said. “I saw it with Junior Seau, I saw it with Rodney Harrison, I saw it with Drew [Brees].
“It was a bit of an upstairs thing [a reference to Smith’s second-story office at team headquarters]. It was a business thing. It would be hurtful if that organization didn’t have a track record of doing that. That would be hurtful. But when you’ve seen it time and time again with guys that you’ve played with, and you see them leave town and you wonder why.”
Although Smith declined to comment for this story, it’s obvious the Chargers feel better about their ability to run the ball now than they did last season, when they ranked 31st in the league in rushing. That’s not because they somehow augmented the offensive line. It’s because they traded up from 28th to 12th in the draft to select Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews.
That sets the stage for a fascinating comparison. Mathews goes to a team that was terrible running the ball last season. Tomlinson goes to last season’s No. 1 rushing team, one that sees him as a complement to feature back Shonn Greene. Will the Chargers get better running the ball? Will the Jets be as good as they were?
Is Tomlinson one of those rare backs who has something left in his 30s? Or is the suggestion that he was pushed aside in San Diego just spin to explain away his decline?
So far, Tomlinson has turned some heads at Jets camp. In a scrimmage this week, he found himself matched up against a linebacker on a go route down the sideline. Quarterback Mark Sanchez hit him in stride for a 70-yard touchdown.
“We’ve got a great back in LaDainian, he’s tremendous,” Jets Coach Rex Ryan said. “Does he look like he’s through? Absolutely not.”
Tomlinson knows, though, that the final measure of success won’t be a big play in training camp or a heartfelt testimonial from his new coach.
“You can’t talk about it, you can’t disprove [critics] in that way,” Tomlinson said. “You’ve just got to go out and perform on the field. That’s the only way it can be done. That’s where I am now.”