SAN DIEGO – LaDainian Tomlinson had just completed the second-worst rushing day of his NFL career, a harrowing three hours in which the great San Diego Chargers halfback was pursued and pummeled like Kid Rock on Tommy Lee at the VMAs.
His response, as he hobbled down a Qualcomm Stadium hallway, was pitch-perfect.
On Sunday, a superstar and his not-so-motley crue grew up in a big way, gaining something far more important than yardage in a 14-3 victory over the Chicago Bears. By game's end the Chargers understood that, to become a champion, you can't always rely on a lightning storm to guide you out of the darkness.
"Sometimes it's not all laid out for you, and you've got to fight – and then you've got to fight some more," Tomlinson said in a private moment before ducking into his post-game press conference. "That's the best kind of victory, to me, especially when you're playing a team like the Chicago Bears. They're a good team, the best in the NFC, and a tough, tough team. To beat them you have to be tough in return, so it's even sweeter when you win one that way."
This was a commendable display of perspective for a man who'd just been held to 25 yards on 17 carries, numbers even crazier when you consider that his lone double-digit gain was a throwaway 10-yard run on the final play of the first half.
True, LT did throw for one touchdown (a 17-yard halfback option strike to tight end Antonio Gates), run for another (a 7-yard burst on which he ran over the Bears' All-Pro outside linebacker, Lance Briggs), and catch seven passes for 51 yards. We knew the reigning league MVP was versatile. More important, as they head into another early-season challenge next Sunday night in New England, we now know the Chargers are, too.
Last season, as it rolled to a league-best 14-2 record, San Diego showed us it could blow a team off the field with big plays on both sides of the ball. What the Chargers demonstrated on Sunday was that they can go all '85 Bears when the situation dictates it. San Diego didn't score until 45 seconds remained in the third quarter, and only then after a somewhat fluky deflection on a punt return set up the Chargers with a short field. And in the end, LT and his fellow skill players understood, this was a good thing.
"There's no question it's better for us to win that way," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "It's way more gratifying. This is a playoff- or championship-type win. We had a chance to do it last year in Baltimore and in Kansas City and against New England, and we couldn't get it done. We did it today, and that's a big step for us.
"When you throw it all over the place and LT runs for 170 yards, it's not quite as meaningful. Don't get me wrong – you do need games like that. But we needed to win a game like this."
Give Tomlinson, Rivers and new Chargers coach Norv Turner credit for realizing what most fans don't: Just because a team looks great one year, it hardly guarantees that the sequel will be smooth. Football is such an emotional sport, and one in which success requires such exaggerated physical sacrifice, that the NFL just doesn't work that way.
There's a reason that, until the Seahawks made the playoffs last season, the five previous Super Bowl losers had failed to reach the postseason the following year: If players get caught up in trying to make that final push for a title, they tend to lose sight of the high degree of intensity and commitment that got them so close to a championship in the first place.
Sitting at the dinner table of his roomy home near the Bears' training facility in Chicago's north suburbs last Wednesday, All-Pro middle linebacker Brian Urlacher – Tomlinson's chief tormentor on Sunday – recalled how the Bears, after going 13-3 and losing in the first round of the '01 playoffs, plummeted to 4-12 the following season.
"Guys thought, ‘We can do that again, no problem,' and we relaxed," he recalled. "We had a young team, and we didn't realize you can't do that, or it all goes to hell. In '05 we got back to the playoffs and lost at home again, but the next year we regrouped and dug down and came back stronger – and we got to the Super Bowl. Hopefully we'll find a way to go even farther this year.
"I look at the Chargers, and the way things went for them in the playoffs, and I see signs of danger. They thought they had the best team last year, and they probably think they just have to play the same way and they'll get back, when that's not necessarily true. Everyone talks about how talented they are, but guess what? Every team in the league has talent. It's what you do with that talent that defines your season."
On Sunday, in a battle between teams trying to fight their way back to the precipice of greatness, the Chargers made fewer mistakes and displayed more grit than their equally physical opponents. Out-slugging last year's NFC champions right out of the gate is a good sign for San Diego, but it may not mean much in the long run. The Patriots and Colts look like they're better than they were in '06, and other contenders could emerge as legitimate powers by season's end.
Last year is so last year.
Even Tomlinson, coming off one of the greatest individual seasons in league history, could be outshined in 2007. The unstoppable one was unsettlingly mortal on Sunday, as the Bears chased him relentlessly and gave him no room to run.
That's cool with LT, though, because he and his teammates are intent on avoiding the most perilous trap of all.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• If there's one thing Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher loves more than closing out a football game, it's closing out a game by stomping all over a submissive opponent. Reached by phone shortly after landing back in Nashville, Tenn., following the Titans' 13-10 road victory over the AFC South rival Jacksonville Jaguars, Fisher was beaming over his team's franchise-record 282 rushing yards – and especially the 25 Tennessee's Chris Brown and LenDale White gained in the final 2:46 to help run out the clock. "When you can take the ball like that in a close game and kill all the time and throw the ball only once, that's football," Fisher said. "That's real football. These guys on my team are amazing; I'll go out and play with them right now." Noting the Jaguars' 9-3 record in season openers, Fisher said, "The weather gods took care of us this summer at training camp, because we had heat in excess of 100 degrees and our team was prepared for going down to Jacksonville and playing in their heat, which has helped them dominate their openers in recent years. We set a franchise record for rushing in their heat. That's amazing."
• Which first-round rookie halfback, Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch, is going to make an immediate impact? Uh, try both. It's a long season, but it's not a stretch to believe that both of these guys could make the Pro Bowl.
• OK, OK, OK, OK: Randy Moss was a good pickup for the Patriots, at least until he refuses to play hurt and/or starts acting like a selfish jerk. Most important, the collective presence of Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth shows how much better the already great Tom Brady is when he has some legitimate receiving threats. With the protection he got from his offensive line today, Brady could've pulled out his BlackBerry and sent me an "I told you so" email before zipping the ball into No. 81's hands.
• If Vince Young and Matt Leinart are trying to become the NFL's answer to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, we may have to find a place for Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler in that analogy. In a 15-14 victory at Buffalo that, unfortunately, will likely be remembered for the horrific spinal injury suffered by Bills backup tight end Kevin Everett (and our thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family as he recovers from emergency surgery), Cutler was mighty cool under pressure for a guy starting his sixth NFL game. Fighting out of a third-and-23 hole on Denver's game-winning drive, Cutler (23 of 39, 304 yards, one TD, one interception) hit Javon Walker for 21 yards and converted a fourth-and-2 with a 7-yard scramble. He then threw an 11-yard pass to Walker with 14 seconds left, at which point the Broncos, trailing by two, had the ball at the Buffalo 24 with 14 seconds left. What happened next – the Broncos rushing out their field-goal unit, snapping the ball with one second to go and watching Jason Elam nail a 42-yard game-winner – was the sign of a well-coached team, and further proof that Mike Shanahan is underappreciated in his own city.
• Let us also acknowledge that Denver's starting running back gained 139 yards on 23 carries, if only because it's a great opportunity to repeat his newly bestowed nickname, King Henry IX.
• If you paid for NFL Sunday Ticket, you got a nice return on your investment in Week 1: Three game-winning field goals (Broncos, Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers) in a five-minute stretch, for starters.
• After virtually everyone else in the 2006 NFL draft came up big as a rookie, including Houston Texans teammate and defensive rookie of the year DeMeco Ryans, it was nice of No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams finally to show up on Sunday. Williams had two sacks and 38-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown in the Texans' 20-3 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, a sight almost as beautiful to fans at Reliant Stadium as that of a quarterback wearing No. 8 smoothly executing the home team's offense. As I've been saying all summer, the uni is about all Matt Schaub and David Carr have in common.
• Barry Switzer and Jimmy Johnson were smooth and entertaining on FOX NFL Sunday's "Grumpy Old Coaches." They'd be even better if Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former personnel director Larry Lacewell took guest-star turns.
• So much for Tony Romo's late-season slump carrying over. A few more games like Sunday night's and he'll be dating Beyonce – and rapping about it.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Ian Hunter wrote "Cleveland Rocks." After one game, the Browns' 34-7 home defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I'm singing a different tune: "Cleveland Sucks." From the bold pre-game proclamations of receiver Josh Cribbs (who?) – "We're going to take this game and win it, and we're going to move on. It's not even a second thought in our heads. There's no doubt in my mind we're going to win" – to the quarterback fiasco to the five turnovers, it's scoop-and-dispose time in the Dawg Pound. Does Romeo Crennel realize that his only chance to save his job is to force Brady Quinn into the lineup and hope the rookie gives his team a spark? And, if not, can someone please tell him?
• The Bears' bummer of a Sunday got even worse upon their arrival at San Diego Lindbergh Field Airport, where they learned that the team plane had been grounded. The jet apparently had collided with a bird on the flight from Denver, sustaining wing damage, and a new plane was commissioned that didn't take off until around 10:15 p.m. Pacific time, a delay of roughly four hours. Summing up the team's plight was my close friend Dan Pedone, a ramp-service employee: "The Chargers gave them a black eye and United gave them a red-eye." Ouch.
• To offer another NBA analogy, the NFC isn't quite the Eastern Conference to the AFC's Western Conference, but it's heading that way. With the Colts mauling the Saints and the Chargers handling the Bears on opening weekend, there's not a whole lot of debate as to where the power lies. It's too bad teams like the Texans, Titans and Bills don't play in the NFC, because if things were to break right they could make legitimate conference title runs.
• For you Atlanta Falcons fans hoping the franchise would rally under first-year coach Bobby Petrino and new starting quarterback Joey Harrington after the Offseason From Hell, you can wake up now. The only thing more painful than watching Atlanta play this season, for y'all, will be watching Schaub thrive in Houston.
• Cadillac Williams, you came into the NFL running hard and have never relented, and I love you for it. But if you're going to survive in this league, you need to figure out how to pick your spots and start avoiding at least some of the contact because, once again, you're as banged up as Lance Briggs' Lamborghini.
• Serious injuries on opening week are a nightmare, especially to Pro Bowl-caliber offensive tackles, which is why they're bumming in Washington (Jon Jansen, dislocated ankle) and St. Louis (Orlando Pace, sprained shoulder) this morning.
• The Eagles' punt returners cost their team a ballgame Sunday, and we all know who'll get blamed in Philly: Donovan McNabb, naturally.
• Hey, Jack Del Rio: If you'd been as decisive about your quarterback situation earlier this summer as you were about your sideline attire, you'd have suited up a more prepared team on Sunday. Jacksonville has talent, but when the starting quarterback gets cut in September, that's a bad, bad sign.
• I'm not digging the Chargers' new uniforms, but I do love the fans who showed up at Qualcomm in those Dan Fouts royal-blue throwback jerseys. I wouldn't mind seeing the team wear those in a game, instead of the current ones and/or the throwback baby blues. For that matter, can the Rams please sport the old blue-and-whites one of these Sundays?
• Tom Coughlin's trademark discipline isn't working – not when Terrell Owens races into the end zone, a flag is thrown, and an opposing player, Giants safety Gibril Wilson, is nailed for unsportsmanlike conduct. Wow. Coughlin needs to win some games early, or his players will turn on him, and he'll be gone before season's end.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1) The popularity of the Cheesecake Factory
2) Why the Browns bothered starting Charlie Frye in the first place. Play the kid and get it over with, Romeo.
STORY OF MY LIFE
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the ever entertaining Voodoo Lounge inside the Chargers' press room, and on Sunday I was treated to the outdoor version: the pregame tailgate in the media lot co-hosted by Chargers beat writers Jay Paris and Bernie Wilson. Upon my arrival, Paris introduced me to a slight, jovial man who was wearing a pair of sweet, retro Rod Lavers … which was even cooler once I realized he was Rod Laver. It turns out Laver, who lives in the area, is a longtime Chargers season-ticket holder; thus, on the day of the U.S. Open final, one of the greatest tennis players of all time and I were kicking it outside Qualcomm discussing the plight of Marty Schottenheimer ("I thought they should've kept him," Laver said). We also talked tennis, which was fascinating. Laver, an all-court player with sublime shot-making skills, worked his magic with a wood racquet; I can't even imagine how scary-good his game would've been with graphite. Conversely, I asked him how he thought Roger Federer would've fared with wood. "He'd be fantastic," Laver responded, "because he has such great timing. So many of today's players don't – they rely on the racquet to hit it hard, and they get away with bad positioning and bad footwork. Roger hits it hard like they do but he also times his shots perfectly, and to succeed with wood, you have to have timing." As great a player as Laver was – and I could very easily make the case that he and Martina Navratilova are the greatest tennis players of all time, period – he seems to be even more gentlemanly, which only made the whole pre-game scene that much more surreal. Before heading into the stadium, I asked him the most important question of all: Where can I get my feet on some of those shoes? "Believe it or not, adidas just signed me on for another four years," he said, laughing. "I've been with them since 1971, and I asked, 'Why would you cut a deal with someone at my age (69)?' They said, 'Why would we not when the sales are so good?' Hey, I'll take it."
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M. Jets fans, I've got an idea: Why don't we ship you all – or at least those of you who cheered Chad Pennington's departure Sunday with a sprained right ankle and the subsequent appearance of backup quarterback Kellen Clemens – to Cleveland for a few years' duty in the Dawg Pound. You don't deserve a quarterback with Pennington's guts, intelligence and drive. You deserve Ryan Leaf.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Now you know why the Colts let (Jason) David go. The guy stinks. You saw the game. You saw the Colts defense. Immensely improved. All of those who thought the Colts would not have a chance to repeat because of all the players that they lost on defense: Maybe you learned something (Thursday) night …
In fairness to David, he was the one player on the Saints (OK, the punter was pretty sweet, too) who actually stepped up and made a huge play. New Orleans could've built on that, but it had nothing. And while David certainly got torched by (Peyton) Manning, (Reggie) Wayne and (Marvin) Harrison, he wasn't the first, and he won't be the last.
"You had me until … hello. Now I have taken my time to do my research on you Mr. Silver and you certainly have the credentials and experience to make outlandish comments or predictions. And while you catch flack for a lot of the sides you take, I have to smile, shake my head and laugh because I tend to side with you on many of those positions. I believe the Cardinals are ready for a breakout season this year and think (Matt) Leinart will be certainly coming into his own this year (now will they win their division or not? That's yet to be seen). And even though I am a huge Kansas City fan, I wasn't upset or doubt you when you sided with the Texans to beat them in Week 1 (we have a lot of work to do like QB, WR, OL and everything else). I also liked some of your picks in your buddy's fantasy draft (especially in the later rounds). But … when you picked Oregon to go into The Big House and beat Michigan, weren't you just showing a little bit of 'Pac 10 favoritism' there? Now I know one of my favorite teams in the whole wide world went from No. 5 to unranked with just 1 loss, and I know Lloyd Carr needed to be fired three years ago, and I also know that we have probably just been put into the record books for one of college footballs biggest upsets! But Mike, come on? When was the last time Michigan lost back to back home games? Now even though it pains me to admit it, I would have rather seen my Wolverines be blown out by Ohio State or MSU (I could respect that) than lose to Appalachian State! But I have also seen how they play on the following game when they lose to an under-matched opponent. Which is why the bookies even know and (had) them favored … by over a touchdown (eight points the last time I looked). And you are taking that to the bank? Don't bet the house on it just yet Mike! I can't wait to see who you pick when Michigan plays Cal in the Rose Bowl (that is if your Bears will get there)."
Thousand Oaks, Calif.
It wasn't Pac-10 favoritism, and unfortunately I didn't bet the house.
"Hey Mike, I just read your column this morning and although I may not agree with all of your views, at least they are entertaining. Since I am fairly certain that you aren't writing the Sports Bible, then I would guess that you are actually doing your job. People take this stuff way too seriously and if they don't like your viewpoint on football then they don't have to read it. If they don't like some of those somewhat strange and bizarre picks for your fantasy football team then they should do their own damn homework and make their own choices. Isn't that what is supposed to make it fun in the first place? Keep up the good work and not to wish bad things on you but I hope you find yourself in New England next January for a pair of playoff games. We'll see as there is a long road ahead for every team!"
Thanks, and for you publishers out there, I am willing to write the Sports Bible if the price is right and you let me start with the Book of Tedford.
"Despite your desperate efforts to sink your friend's fantasy team, (and his poor boy's as well!), I think you wrote a good piece this week. Granted, as a Colts' season ticket (holder), I would find great joy in the humiliation of a former Colt who took the money and ran. David had only started to build a career here, and he decided to chase the paycheck instead of staying with a winner. After the Colts took a commanding lead in the third quarter, I chided from my end zone seats, 'How's that free agent money look now Jason?' Be assured, most Indy fans don't despise departed free agents. Let there be no doubt, this was a statement game. For anyone in the league who thought the free agent losses the Colts took on defense would devastate an already 'soft unit,' the Champs would like to inform you that you're sorely mistaken. Lastly, I'd like to note all the jokers who love to write in to columnists ripping their preseason picks when not even you guys truly know the result. Me? I'll save my judgments of your prognostications for the end of the year."
Theo in the Ville
Thanks, and one question: That was you yelling from the end zone? I could've sworn it was Bill Polian from behind me in the press box.
"Um … not to be one of those annoying bashers or anything, but when Dan the Man said he'd been in eight drafts and Shaub had never been taken, I'm pretty sure he meant eight drafts this year. In which case your sarcastic, 'he's never been a starting qb before' makes no sense and kind of solidifies the fact that you are a fantasy newcomer. I've been in numerous drafts this year and Schaub has been taken maybe once … not to say he won't turn out to be good, but you probably could've taken him in the last round. A skilled fantasy drafter knows when to take people … not just who is going to be good. For example, your friend probably could have taken (Carson) Palmer in the second round and gotten (Joseph) Addai in the first. Doesn't Addai/Palmer sound much better than Palmer/(Adrian) Peterson?"
I still like Peterson. I think he's going to rip up the league (and he certainly had a hell of a debut on Sunday). And Dan the Man was in fact talking about the previous eight years – though, it should be noted, Schaub has only been in the league for four. Anyone who is in eight leagues could probably use a tan and some exercise.
"Let me get this straight: your buddy Malibu asks you for fantasy football drafting advice when he's going up against? 'entertainment-industry types' (sounds pretty hardcore …) and when you aren't even sure about the whole 'rules of fantasy' thing to begin with. That dude deserves to draft Malcom Floyd. Better yet, tell homer that Natrone Means is still available. And while you're at it, let him know that it's fantasy football not Scrabble (could he get any more vowels from Brandon Manumaleuna?)."
I don't know the answer to that last question, Jason Tivy-DeBauche, but have you noticed that you have a pretty hardcore Scrabble name yourself?
"Okay, I just read my first article of yours (about Jason David and Reggie Wayne). I consider myself a 'smartish' (if you will) man, and will reserve judgment on your literary skills until I have read more of your work. Although you do receive points for living in NorCal where I have family. This is not the point of this message though. I am thrilled that someone has the time and balls to write a 'read-and-react' type column. I used to love writing to your colleague Charles Robinson for his 'read-and-react' column and was really disappointed when he decided to shut down the column. So, kudos for you for allowing all the nutjobs to send you ridiculous emails. But, for me, could you try and stop laughing long enough to also include some reasonably thought out ones as well? Thanks for your time and effort! I look forward to reading your material."
San Marcos, Calif.
Dude, it's official: I'm upgrading you from "smartish" to smart. And Charles Robinson, who's sitting next to me as I write this from the Qualcomm press box, concurs.
"Are you serious! Arizona to win the West? I guess you picked the South to beat the North back then. Arizona has no chance to win the West. Seattle won the West last year with no quarterback, no running back, and half a line. Don't even get me started with the DBs from Wal-Mart we picked up to finish the year and still barely lost to the Bears. Seattle is being completely overlooked again and last time that happened they went to the Super Bowl. Their defense is vastly improved and will not be giving up big plays all over the place with the new DBs. The offense will be better with a healthy (Matt) Hasselbeck and (Shaun) Alexander. So if they can stop the run which is still a big question in my mind they will walk away with the West again and potentially get home-field throughout the playoffs. And we all know what its like to go to Seattle for a playoff game. They wet down their balls! Arizona please!"
Dude, I know you're from a town with a famous battlefield, but did you really just make a Civil War reference? I'm old, but I'm not that old. For what it's worth, as you might have guessed from my collegiate loyalties, I'm partial to blue.
"Kudos for not drumming up the same old story lines that we've seen year-after-year- after-year. Nice work. Hey, by the way, how much do you want for the rest of the Denny Green flavored Kool-Aid you're slurpin'? Arizona will be out of it by Thanksgiving."
West Bend, Wis.
"Michael, You do realize, of course, that if you continue to pick a team to win their division, eventually they will. Might take a decade or two, but they'll get it. It is nice, however, to know that the Cardinals finally have a good coaching staff and some great skilled position players. I hope they finally get your prediction right! And … I would like to revise my previous? Rose Bowl prediction: Texas 35, Cal 34. Or Cal 42, Texas 21. Oh, never mind. Cal looked great, Texas looked like North Texas!"
Wichita Falls, Texas
Why must you keep messing up my Rose Bowl fantasy by placing Mack Brown in Pasadena? May we please have Ohio State or Michigan? I know the Wolverines are a bit shaky right now, but playing them in the Granddaddy would be an honor … and can you imagine the gorgeous blue/gold/yellow color scheme throughout the stadium?
"The problem with Tiki is not that he is taking a shot is that he's taking a shot with privileged information and that I think is not right. If you want to establish your credibility, you should try to say something about the other teams and be very careful with your old team for at least a year. Furthermore … if the only way you can make an impact is to report on things that happen when you are a player, boy your career will be short."
You make it sound as though Barber was reading terminology from the Giants' playbook on the air … or talking about a teammate's erectile dysfunction. He related a story about a team meeting from 2006 and gave his impressions. Perhaps the word "comical" was a bit harsh, but that's his choice. Like it or not, this is what he's getting paid to do now.
"Don't let all these people get to you Michael. They don't understand how blinded you've become over your crush on Tom Brady. It must be hard to focus on writing when all you see is Brady throwing bombs to Moss and Stallworth. Hopefully someone will be there to pick up the pieces when it all comes crashing down. I witnessed Randy in his early years and he is far from the player he used to be. Everyone is getting way too high on Stallworth, Moss and Brady. All the Pats did was sign two injury-prone receivers who will probably be massaging each other's hamstrings by mid-season. Don't worry though I'm sure you'll be out of work by then."
Actually, I have a two-year contract with an option year, which is more than Moss can say. And if you actually think I'm a fan of that acquisition, Sunday's performance notwithstanding, check out Yahoo! Sports more often.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/PHONE MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"That ain't no s--- and I gotta go to court in the morning. Thanks for rubbing it in and we got our asses kicked."
– Urlacher, at 7:36 p.m. Pacific – while enduring his long delay at San Diego's Lindbergh Airport – in response to my "It sucks to be you" text.