Tomlinson comes to grips with recent turmoil

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

SAN DIEGO – There's a place where the truly dedicated go in their head when they fail to reach their dreams. LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) has reached that location.

It may not be evident right away from his friendly demeanor, but he's deep into that place. Between the frustration of the San Diego Chargers wasting their best chance ever to win a Super Bowl in the 2006 season and Tomlinson himself having to stand on the sideline during the playoffs the next two years as his body betrayed him, Tomlinson's emotions toggle between frustration and humiliation.

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Tomlinson during practice this week

(Denis Poroy/AP Photo)

"When we lost in [the 2006 playoffs], I didn't feel like people were necessarily laughing at me. But I remember watching that Super Bowl [between Indianapolis and Chicago] and it was like, 'Are you kidding me? That should be us,' " Tomlinson acknowledged during training camp this week. "I was happy because [Colts quarterback] Peyton [Manning] is a good friend of mine and I like guys on their team, so I was happy for them. But, at the same time I'm thinking, that could be us.

"The past two years, I feel like with the injuries I've had the last two years, sitting out the playoffs, I've felt like that … like people are looking at me and laughing, saying, 'Man, you can play, you should be out there.' "

For Tomlinson, the past three years have been a regression from the heights of individual success to controversy. He has gone from league MVP in '06 after posting one of the greatest seasons in NFL history (1,815 yards rushing and a record 31 touchdowns) to a guy who was forced to restructure his contract this offseason amid declining play as the Chargers look to the future.

That future could soon exclude Tomlinson, who is entering his ninth year. That's borrowed time for an NFL running back. Yet, he's not the only prominent Charger entering the final year of his contract. Among the others are quarterback Philip Rivers(notes), linebacker Shawne Merriman(notes), wide receivers Vincent Jackson(notes), Chris Chambers(notes) and Malcom Floyd(notes) , running back/return man Darren Sproles(notes) and left tackle Marcus McNeill(notes).

In other words, pretty much the nucleus of the team is in flux.

Tomlinson is the face of that flux, just as he has been the face of the Chargers for the better part of his career. He knows there are questions about his health. He heard and read plenty about that during the offseason as his agent Tom Condon and the Chargers worked through difficult talks on his contract.

"I was hearing people say I'm finished, I'm washed up. They didn't know why the team should re-sign me," said Tomlinson, the league's second-active leading rusher behind Edgerrin James(notes). "They were like, just let him go, release him. It didn't really hurt, but it was eye-opening because there are some people out there who just don't want to see you do good."

For awhile this offseason, Tomlinson thought general manager A.J. Smith was one of those people. Shortly after the season, the sometimes brusque Smith talked about Tomlinson and discussed how all players are evaluated on a year-to-year basis. It's not any different than how Smith views all personnel, including himself. But the cut-and-dried approach came off as cold-hearted toward a beloved player. Tomlinson was privately upset and Smith eventually called Tomlinson to clear the air.

"When you're first approached about the situation, you're kind of like, 'Are you kidding me?' But then you realize all the guys that have been through it and then you can't become angry or emotional about it. There are so many guys who have been through it. Junior Seau(notes), Rodney Harrison(notes), Dan Fouts … there comes a day," said Tomlinson, who sought the advice of all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith in dealing with the situation.

For A.J. Smith's part, he said the notion of a rift was incorrect.

"There was this perception out there in the media and among the fans that there was a problem between myself and LaDainian, but there never was," Smith said while sitting behind his desk. "After we got the contract restructured, he sat right there across from me and we talked about it. He understands where I'm coming from and what this franchise needed to do."

From Smith's view, restructuring Tomlinson's deal was not done solely on the basis of production (Tomlinson is coming off a career-low 1,110 yards rushing) and injury, but with an eye toward the future.

Between all the significant players who are coming up for new contracts and the talks regarding a new collective bargaining agreement, Smith said he has had to devise a well-structured plan.

The lynchpin – or "Plan A," as Smith put it – was to get Tomlinson's deal redone.

"That was first and foremost before we could go on to dealing with Plan B and Plan C," Smith said.

While that's logical and understandable, it's hard for players to understand how an organization can ask them to run through a wall one day and then ask them to take a pay cut the next.

"It was painful to see L.T. go through that," Rivers said. "As a teammate and a friend, you're just feeling bad that a guy like that, who has done so much for the team and means so much to the community, has to get into that. You're calling to make sure he's OK and hoping they can work something out because he needs to be here."

After his outstanding '08 season (34 TD passes, 11 interceptions, 4,009 yards), there's the notion that the Chargers are becoming Rivers' team. Both Rivers and Tomlinson don't see it that way and such an approach is not indicative of coach Norv Turner's history.

"There's no question that Norv wants balance," Rivers said. "It didn't work out that way last year for a few reasons, but that's not the plan. We want a strong running game to go with everything else."

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Tomlinson was pretty much relegated to the sidelines during the playoffs.

(Tom E. Puskar/AP Photo)

Said Tomlinson: "I think it was just circumstances. We want to run the ball, it's just that I was hurt and we had to adjust."

Tomlinson's pride made his injuries worse last season. Tomlinson hurt his left toe in the season opener and says now that he probably should have missed four to six weeks to let it heal. However, still stinging from the criticism he took for missing much of the playoffs the season before because of a knee injury, Tomlinson tried to gut it out.

Eventually, the toe injury led to a torn abductor muscle in his stomach that cost him the playoffs, he said.

"Why didn't I just sit down? But it was the pride in me. I'm the two-time defending rushing champ, I had been injured in the playoffs last year and people wondered … all of that. Just my pride made me think that I didn't want to sit," he said.

Now, with another season nearing, those emotions are welling again.

"I feel like we should have at least one Super Bowl championship by now. You look back at all the plays and you say, 'Man, we should have won that game.' You watch the AFC championship game and the Super Bowl and it really messes with you," Tomlinson admits. "It does and if we don't get it done … I may kick myself the rest of my life thinking about this stuff."

The emotions are obvious to Tomlinson's teammates, even if he doesn't say much about it to them.

"You can see the fire in his eyes, how serious he is when he starts talking about this year," defensive tackle Jamal Williams(notes) said. "You know he's going to prove to everybody. It's like when you hear people say, 'Oh, he's not this or that.' He'll show them. I'm excited to see him."