NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — LaDainian Tomlinson realizes he’s no longer considered the dominant, game-changing rusher he once was or even an every-down running back.
Just don’t think for a moment that he thinks he’s anywhere close to being done. In his second year with the Jets, Tomlinson is remaking himself as a third-down threat out of the backfield.
“It’s the role that I’m in and, for me, I don’t think it makes sense to sit here and try to pout about what’s not happening and the things you can do,” he said Thursday. “Embrace it. That’s the way I’ve always been.”
“He’s a freak,” said offensive lineman Matt Slauson. “Everybody counted him out, said he’s too old, he can’t do it anymore. But last year he destroyed everyone. In my opinion, he was the comeback player of the league.”
Some might say this version of L.T. is a shell of the electrifying player who once set an NFL record with 28 rushing touchdowns and 31 overall scores in 2006. Well, he’s 32 now and his 13,420 yards rushing and 588 receptions have surely taken a toll. But, Tomlinson still presents a challenge for opposing defenses. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys.
Tomlinson rushed for just 16 yards on five carries in the opener Sunday, but tied for the team lead with six catches for 73 yards. That included a 32-yard catch-and-run that helped set up the Jets’ first score late in the first half.
“I think he has proved people wrong,” fullback John Conner said. “I think some people think he’s probably ready to hang it up, but he’s still moving great out there with great feet and makes a lot of big plays for us.”
Coach Rex Ryan says Tomlinson might not have the speed he had as a young player, but still has some slick moves.
“He’s a guy that I think when it’s all said and done, when his career’s over and he’s in the Hall of Fame and all that, he’ll come back and win like a ‘Dancing In The Stars’ kind of thing,” Ryan said.
Umm, Rex, it’s “Dancing WITH The Stars.”
“I created my own show,” Ryan said, grinning. “It’s ‘Dancing In the Stars.’ Anybody can do it with the stars.”
So, how about it, L.T.? Maybe a few foxtrots and waltzes down the line?
“Uh, no,” Tomlinson said with a laugh. “I won’t be on ‘Dancing With The Stars.’ That’s not going to happen. But, I’m glad Rex can still see the skills. I would say back then, I used to be real fast.
“Now I’m just, you know, fast.”
Fast enough to make defenses pay attention to him whenever he’s out on the field. While that might not be as often as it once was, he’s OK with that, even though he needs 243 yards rushing to pass Jerome Bettis (13,662) for fifth place on the NFL’s career rushing list.
“I’ve always been a guy that whatever my role was, whether it was carrying the ball 25 times or catching the ball out of the backfield, I was going to do the best I could,” he said. “It’s no different here, playing that third-down role.”
He has taken a backseat to Shonn Greene, who has been tapped as the starter in his third season. That comes after Tomlinson ran for 914 yards and could have had a shot at his ninth 1,000-yard season in 10 years if he hadn’t rested for the regular-season finale against Buffalo.
“I think you approach it as not being as selfish as a guy who wants to do everything,” Tomlinson said.
Greene had just 26 yards rushing on 10 carries Sunday, but the Jets couldn’t do much of anything on the ground against the Cowboys. Mark Sanchez ended up throwing 44 times for 335 yards, while the team used several three-tight end sets.
“We’re still using the fullback, but we’re using more tight ends, so it’s a different change,” Tomlinson said. “We’re working on it, we’re getting better, but we’re still going to be able to run the football. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for us.”
Tomlinson carried the ball three times on first down and twice on second down against Dallas, but two of his six catches came on third-down plays for first downs.
“This is something that I’ve always wanted to do, is running routes out of the backfield as I got a little older,” said Tomlinson, who has said he wants to play through next season. “Of course, I’ve said before that I embraced it. I embraced the role and, obviously, I want to touch the ball, no doubt. When I’m running routes, I want Mark to look for me. So, I think that’s a part of the competitiveness that you have and wanting to contribute to the team, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
The less-is-better approach is one Tomlinson insists he would have taken years ago if he was asked, even during his biggest seasons with the San Diego Chargers. The first season he had less than 300 carries was his eighth in 2008.
“My first, second, third year, I carried the ball a lot, so it got to the point where even in San Diego, I really wanted Michael Turner to help me out a lot and the same with Darren Sproles,” he said. “It was just because I felt I wanted to be fresher as the season went along and we got closer to the playoffs.”
Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was part of his father Marty’s staff in San Diego from 2002-05, when Tomlinson ran for 6,125 yards and 62 touchdowns.
“Obviously, he’s still a great player,” Schottenheimer said. “The only thing I see is back then, when he would break, you very rarely saw anybody on the screen with him. He’s learned to use his quickness and stuff now, but still just a great player and obviously a guy that’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.”
Notes: Special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff, under contract through this season, said he’d like to coach through the 2012 season. “That’s my goal,” he said. “Then I’ll be 65 and that might be enough, but trust me, I don’t think that far ahead.”
How much gas does Tomlinson have left in the tank? Sound off in the comments below…
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