James Brown once said that "Money won't change you, but time will take you out." The Godfather of Soul could have been talking about all running backs when he unleashed that outstanding bit of philosophy, and one of the all-time greats is about to call it a career.
It was announced on Sunday morning that LaDainian Tomlinson, the league's fifth all-time leading rusher, will retire after 11 seasons. Tomlinson, who played for the New York Jets over the last two seasons, will sign a contract with the Chargers in order to retire with his original team. Tomlinson will speak about his retirement at a Monday news conference.
"There have been very few players in the NFL who have meant as much to their team as LT did during his career here," said Chargers head coach Norv Turner. "In particular, his MVP season in 2006. It would be hard to find a back who's led the league in rushing and caught over 100 balls in separate seasons. It speaks volumes to his abilities and what he was capable of doing."
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who has terrorized more than his share of running backs over the last 16 years, held Tomlinson above the fray, and recently gave him a rare level of respect when asked.
"LT changed the way the running back is looked at," Lewis told the Chargers' official site. "You think about him being a complete three-down back and using that as a receiver as well. You hadn't seen that many backs have that type of versatility. He was one of those backs that you had to get in position on all downs on the ball. I think that's the way he really changed the game."
Tomlinson was selected fifth overall in the 2001 NFL draft, and his impact was immediate. In his rookie campaign, he gained 1,236 yards on 339 carries, and scored 10 touchdowns. From 2002 through 2007, he averaged 1,569 yards and 17.5 touchdowns on 338 carries per season -- one of the greatest stretches of continued productivity the NFL will ever see.
And that's just on the ground -- Tomlinson was also one of the NFL's all-time great receiving backs. In 2003, he became the second back to catch 100 or more passes with 100 on the nose (fullback Larry Centers of the Arizona Cardinals caught 101 in 1995), and his career totals of 624 receptions for 4,772 yards and 17 touchdowns would be a pretty good career for any pure wideout. As much as Walter Payton or Marshall Faulk or anyone else you'd care to mention in NFL annals, Tomlinson was the very definition of the complete back -- the jack-of-all-trades who mastered every aspect of his game.
Sadly, though, Tomlinson couldn't avoid the two great equalizers among all elite backs -- workload and time. Just three years after his 2006 MVP season, in which he set an NFL record with 28 rushing touchdowns, Tomlinson was missing games and watching his rushing totals decline severely -- from 1,815 yards in 2006, to 1,474 in 2007, to 1,110 in 2008, to 730 in his last Chargers season of 2009. He had a nice bump in his first season with the New York Jets after signing as a free agent in 2010, but that 914-yard year was just a flashback to a better time. Last season, Tomlinson gained just 280 yards on 75 carries, and it certainly looked as if the end was near.
Tomlinson confirmed this to SI.com's Jim Trotter in May, telling Trotter that he was "95 percent retired" and that it would take the perfect combination of team and role to reverse that process. The next NFL process for Tomlinson? Waiting five years for his eligibility into the Hall of Fame. With 13,684 rushing yards and 145 touchdowns -- good for fifth and third on the all-time lists, respectively -- anything but a first-ballot shoo-in in 2017 would be an insult.
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