By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBS 2) — Behind the black visor is a man who many think has a lot to prove to just about everyone.
Atop that list are the San Diego Chargers. To them and their fans, LaDainian Tomlinson is an after thought. Sure, some years from now they will honor him the right way with all the bells and whistles and pomp and circumstance befitting the greatest player to ever put on that team’s uniform. But for now, LT is out of sight and certainly out of their minds.
That’s because the Chargers have a new stud running back by the name of Ryan Mathews, who, by all accounts, could be the next LT. Standing 6-foot and 220 pounds and with all the skills of a traditional power runner and third-down back, Mathews figures to punish everyone and everything in his way this season.
And he’s just 23.
On the flipside there is Tomlinson, persona non grata to many now that he’s supposedly “over the hill,” but to Jets fans a present teased early with instructions from the messenger not to open until 1985.
Well, Tomlinson’s time machine has made one final stop, and we’ll see first hand if he and his new teammates can get this highly anticipated season off to a fast start when they take on the Baltimore Ravens tonight at the new Meadowlands Stadium.
LT is 31 now and don’t think for a second he hasn’t heard every last fan, player and media expert that has said he’s done. The Jets don’t think he’s done, but they do have some reservations. Though Tomlinson signed a two-year contract in the offseason, his deal is really one year with a team option for 2011, because if he’s ineffective the Jets will likely do everything in their power to release him in the offseason.
So, again, the oft-used cliche is appropriate. It’s one man against the world.
The idea of Tomlinson coming aboard at the expense of also-aging Thomas Jones rubbed a great percentage of Jets Nation the wrong way. The naysayers’ logic had merit to a degree. Jones was a warrior. He quietly went about his business and improved statistically all three years he wore the green and white. Last season, at the same age Tomlinson is now, Jones was every bit the workhorse back fans and coaches dream about, finishing with more than 1,400 yards and 14 TDs on the ground.
But Jones’ numbers, especially his yards-per-carry average, took a dive over the season’s final month, prompting the Jets to turn to then-rookie Shonn Greene to carry the load in the playoffs. Then when Greene went down with a rib injury in the AFC title game Jones came in but couldn’t replicate that which made him oh so reliable for oh so long.
Then came a contract squabble, leaving the Jets in an odd position. They chose to part ways with Jones, but instead of going with Greene as the featured back and Leon Washington as their third-down option, a role he likely would have excelled at had he not been traded to Seattle, they went out and signed Tomlinson for roughly the same money Jones eventually ended up saying he’d settle for.
This set many fans off in a manner I had not seen before, behavior that was rather hard to fathom. While I’ll admit LT has lost a step, he still appears to have more than enough for what the Jets need him to do. The simple truth here is Jones can’t do what LT is being asked to do. It’s not about who would be better suited as a 20-25-carry guy. It’s about changing the pace, catching the ball out of the backfield and keeping opposing defenses off balance.
LT can still do that and do it at a high level. Jones cannot and really has never been that kind of back.
Here’s a little known fact about Tomlinson: We’ve all heard about his injury problems and how he’s no longer even viable as your third running back in fantasy circles, but in his first nine full NFL seasons he missed just three games, even though it felt like he was often in street clothes a lot during the end of his tenure in San Diego.
And many will come at me saying the same logic I use to illustrate Jones’ demise should be used for Tomlinson. LT’s yards-per-carry average has gone backwards over the last four seasons — from 5.2 in 2006 to 3.3 last season. The same man who caught at least 50 balls for eight straight seasons ended up with just 20 receptions in 2009.
But here’s my thinking and I stand by it: Tomlinson was basically healthy all of last season, but only carried the ball 223 times, 69 less than the previous season and 115 fewer than his 2000-07 average. From 2008-09, quarterback Philip Rivers’ pass attempts and yardage went through the roof. Now, should we blame this exclusively on Tomlinson’s apparent demise or would we be better served admitting that the Chargers changed their entire offensive philosophy from ground and pound to a modern day version of “Air Coryell?”
I think the Chargers did what they felt would best suit their youth, but I don’t believe for a second they stopped running the football because LT couldn’t bring his “A” game anymore. They still had diminutive-yet-explosive Darren Sproles, but he only averaged 5.8 rushing attempts per game last season.
No, the Chargers changed. LT got older and nicked up, but was still more than capable. He just didn’t see the ball anywhere near as much and his offensive line went from road graters to ultimate pass protectors.
So now Tomlinson is 100 percent healthy and back in his element with the Jets, taking his position behind an offensive line that will run all day and night and pass mostly to keep opponents honest. He’s now a role player asked to take on a pretty darn important weekly task and if need be can be put into the featured back slot and the Jets shouldn’t miss a beat.
Did you watch him in the preseason? Did you like what you saw? Can you muster even one complaint?
It’s a perfect situation for a player longing for redemption in the form of a ring and for a team that wants nothing more than to be champions for the first time since man walked on the moon.
Tomlinson may not say a whole heck of a lot, but when he does it’s often poignant. The Jets may not ask him to take over any games this season, but when he does — and he will — look out.
A lot of people are going to owe this guy a huge apology.
(Jeff Capellini is a senior editorial editor for CBSNewYork.com. He also writes under the moniker “The Green Lantern” on the Jets, Yankees, Islanders and many other things Gotham sports. Please follow him on Twitter at @greenlanternjet)