The run began like so many others for LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) over the past two-plus years – slowly developing to the outside and seemingly destined to go nowhere, sure to be cited as further confirmation that the formerly great back has lost a step.
And then suddenly, breathtakingly, on a magical Sunday night in Miami, it was 2006 again: LT made a sharp cut near the left sideline, swept past a slew of Dolphins defenders and made strong safety Chris Clemons look silly before being dragged down at the 5-yard-line, 18 yards from where he began. Four plays and a pass-interference penalty later, the Jets' rejuvenated halfback took a patented leap over right guard and into the end zone for his 154th career touchdown and the final points in a 31-23 victory.
Watching the game on television on the opposite side of the country, Tomlinson's close friend and former on-field escort, longtime NFL fullback Lorenzo Neal(notes), jumped out of his bed and screamed to his wife, Denisha, "Dee – he's back!"
"That was the play," Neal said Tuesday of Tomlinson's 18-yard burst, part of a 15-carry, 70-yard effort. "He stretched it out, cut downhill and showed the speed to bounce around the corner – and he showed he still has the ability to make people miss. And it showed a team that says, 'When in doubt, we're gonna go with a proven brand' – and that brand is LT. People said he was washed up? Now when he comes into the game everyone's on the edge of their seat."
[Photos: LaDainian Tomlinson's latest action]
At 31, Tomlinson may no longer be in his prime, but three games into his Jets tenure he seems to have more bounce in his game than he did through most of his final two injury-plagued seasons in San Diego. Though he gave Chargers fans a few thrilling tastes of the old LT, there was a sense that he had entered a black hole, and his release last February was mostly met by shrugs.
As a free agent, Tomlinson reportedly had two serious suitors – one of which, the Vikings, saw the future Hall of Famer in a clear backup role behind All-Pro Adrian Peterson. The Jets, with second-year back Shonn Greene(notes) as the presumed starter, viewed Tomlinson as part of a legitimate 1-2 punch.
Yet I'm not sure even the Jets understood the power they'd be getting behind that punch. For two years Neal had been telling me it was unfair to write off LT until he was given a shot in a pure power-running attack, as the Chargers no longer were under Norv Turner.
So, when Tomlinson signed with the Jets – whose offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, happens to be the son of the man who coached the Chargers during LT's heyday – the now-retired Neal offered some simple but pointed advice for his friend.
Said Neal: "Over the offseason he asked, 'Lo, when you were 30, why were you still playing so well?' I told him, 'Get stronger. Get 225 [pounds], and do 20 squats every single day – even if you have another workout, or if you just came from one.'
"You might not get faster when you're older, but you can get stronger. You can see how strong he is. His commitment to refocus on training was huge. He's running harder, breaking arm tackles. He's rejuvenated. And he's on a team that has to run the ball to win."
There's something else going on, too, a vibe I picked up upon during my visit to Jets training camp in August, and one you can quantify from the body language you see on Sundays. Tomlinson is constantly slapping hands with teammates, helping them up, giving dap and getting excited.
Remember the injured star sitting alone on the bench with head covered by a hood in the Chargers' defeat to the Patriots in the 2007 AFC championship game? LT 2.010, at least so far, is his psychic opposite.
I've seen this happen before when all-time greats go elsewhere after feeling like they'd been disrespected by their longtime employer – Ronnie Lott's first year with the Raiders would be the classic example, and Brett Favre's(notes) revival with the '08 Jets and '09 Vikings the most recent one. The stress of hanging on and living up to one's past glories gives way to gratitude for a new opportunity and a crystallized sense of redemption.
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Tomlinson knew the Jets sincerely valued him over the summer, when coach Rex Ryan and others started insisting to me and everyone else in earshot that he most certainly still had game. And when two of his former teammates, quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) and tight end Antonio Gates(notes), made public comments suggesting that his departure had a positive effect on locker-room chemistry, LT wasn't the only one who fired back.
A sampling of the responses I got:
• Tackle Damien Woody(notes): "Yeah, we all saw that. It was kind of like nuke missiles flying from the other side. It's unfortunate that somebody would say something after you leave. What does that say about you? We've got his back 100 percent. I've been telling people, LT's still got a lot of giddy-up in his legs. San Diego is Philip Rivers' team now. A lot has changed. They have an aerial attack – it's like their receivers are basketball players and they're playing alley-oop. So when they go to run the ball, they can't. We practice that every day. Rex calls it ground and pound."
• Linebacker Jason Taylor(notes): "I think it's very disappointing that guys would do that. It's a little unprofessional. If you call the guy a friend, you ought not to do that. If you had an issue, you should speak to him face-to-face."
• Linebacker Bart Scott(notes): "Man up. Drop your balls. Have a pair. Say it. LT's a lot classier than I am. I'd have fired back with an atomic bomb." (Have I mentioned that I love interviewing Bart Scott?)
• Ryan: "Yeah, I think it's hilarious. Here's one of the finest players in the history of your organization, if not the finest, and a former NFL Man of the Year. Every franchise would love to have a person and player like that. And they're taking shots at that guy? We've got a great back in LaDainian. He's tremendous. Does he look like he's through? Absolutely not. He's strong. He looks fast. He looks tremendous to me."
Tomlinson, too, foresaw his revival. "My plan is to win a championship first," he said, "but in the midst of doing that prove that I'm not done, that I can play football. If you talk to my teammates, they'll tell you how I look out there."
Three games into the season, it's there for all of us to see. Tomlinson, not Greene, started Sunday's game. He's got a team-leading 208 yards on 37 carries, good for a 5.6-yard average, which is significantly better than his 2009 figure (3.3) and Greene's current clip (3.5). He has nine catches for 60 yards. And yes, he's in a very happy place.
"I talked to him [Tuesday]," Neal said. "He said, 'Lo, they know how to run the ball here.' And he's happy, without a doubt.
"In San Diego, it was 'What's wrong with LT?' It's like having a girlfriend who doesn't want you anymore. You start searching for approval, searching for acceptance, and it just pushes her away more, and now you're not being you. LT started feeling like he was in that same position.
"Now you see him and he's laughing, having fun, happy to be with the guys. Why? He's accepted. And he's back."
Now, on to the top-to-bottom trip through the league, where the defending champs are no longer at the front of the line.
3. New Orleans Saints: When former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita(notes) told me (for GQ's NFL Kickoff package) that Hartley was a "fat punk kicker," did he copyright the phrase for T-shirt-printing purposes?
9. Cincinnati Bengals: Could right tackle Dennis Roland(notes) have been any more deliberate as Carson Palmer(notes) tried unsuccessfully to spike the ball at the Carolina 5-yard line in the final seconds of the first half last Sunday?
10. Indianapolis Colts: How refreshing is it that Peyton Manning(notes), when backed up on his own half-yard line, simply drops back to pass, rather than running a panicky quarterback sneak or quick-dive into the line?
23. Detroit Lions: Why am I so convinced that this 0-3 team is so close to taking a major step forward?
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Did Raheem Morris really send out the punting team on fourth-and-3 from the Steelers' 36 with a 32-point deficit in the fourth quarter last Sunday?
27. San Francisco 49ers: If Mike Singletary had taken dismissed offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye's advice to have Yahoo! "come call the plays," is there any doubt there'd be a sharp reduction in 5-yard passes on third-and-long?