By Steve Silverman
» More Columns
You may remember him in Green and White, but you shouldn’t.
LaDainian Tomlinson finished his NFL career in a Jets uniform. He got himself in the best shape he could, he tried hard and he played professionally. But he was not very good. By the time Tomlinson’s career came to an end, he was just a shell of the football player that he was in his prime.
That’s what you should remember. Tomlinson was wound as tightly as a steel spring when he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers and became one of the greatest and most versatile running backs in the history of the game.
The Chargers selected him in 2001 out of Texas Christian University. He was widely acknowledged to be the best running back in the draft and the Chargers selected him with the No. 5 pick that year. It was one of the best picks that organization has ever made.
Tomlinson needed almost no adjustment period when he got into the league. The Chargers decided that he would be their lode back after about two practice sessions. They saw he was by far the best running back in camp and it was clear to head coach Mike Riley – an abysmal failure for the Chargers – that Tomlinson was probably the best player on the team. He knew the only hope the team had of succeeding was to load up on Tomlinson and let him do everything.
Tomlinson was a running back who did a lot more than run with the football. He excelled in that area, but he could also catch passes, throw the football and he was a sensational blocker. If that sounds a lot like a Hall of Famer who played with the Chicago Bears in the 1970s and ‘80’s named Walter Payton, there’s good reason. When Tomlinson was on top of his game for the first seven years of his career, he was Payton with even better numbers. In the eighth year of his career (2008), Tomlinson was still an excellent back who ran for 1,110 yards and 11 touchdowns. But when his yards per carry went down to 3.8 yards per pop, it was clear that he was not the same once-in-a-generation back that he had been.
He still was better than most running backs in their prime and he was still catching the football – 52 catches – but head coach Norv Turner knew that Tomlinson could no longer be the centerpiece of the Chargers attack.
He played one more year for the Chargers in 2009 and it was painful. Tomlinson became a role player and that was not a position he could endure – at least for the team that drafted him.
When he came to the Jets in 2010, he had a much different attitude. He knew he was in the twilight of his career and he knew that he was not the player that he had been. Serving as the versatile do-it-all back who did not have to play the role of Superman, Tomlinson gave Rex Ryan everything he had. He ran for 914 yards and played a key role in a season in which they played in the AFC Championship game.
But Tomlinson had almost nothing left in the tank last year. It was just a matter of time before he called it a career and the Chargers gave him that opportunity to retire in powder blue.
He ended his career as a mortal running back who had slowed and could no longer get those tough yards. But during the first seven years of his career, he was as good as any NFL running back who ever carried the ball. He deserves to be compared with Jim Brown and Barry Sanders.
That’s elite company. The Jets were lucky to have him for one productive season and an additional year. He is a sure-fire Hall of Famer who deserves all the accolades that have come his way.
How do you remember Tomlinson? Leave a comment below.