SAN DIEGO – He had just ripped through the Philadelphia Eagles' defense with an electrifying 20-yard touchdown run that evoked memories of his prime, and logic suggested that LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) would simply hand the football to the nearest official in the end zone and act like he'd been there before. Because, you know, he had – this was the 146th regular-season touchdown of Tomlinson's career, more than all but two players in NFL history – and because that's what L.T. always does.
Sunday, however, was a day of surprises at Qualcomm Stadium.
When the San Diego Chargers' future Hall of Fame halfback crossed the goal line for the second time to give his team a 15-point lead with eight minutes left in the third quarter, he threw the ball behind him and continued to the back right corner of the end zone, where he saluted his adoring fans with an impromptu crouching pose before chest-bumping fullback Mike Tolbert(notes).
Had the old stadium not been rocking so hard, at least some of the 68,789 fans might have done double-takes, for the 30-year-old Tomlinson has never been one to celebrate conspicuously. This, however, was a special day, and not just because of the milestones he achieved or the 31-23 victory over the Eagles he fueled.
Tomlinson will remember Sunday as the day he learned his legacy would include something greater than individual numbers that are among the most impressive in the history of his sport.
The surprise occurred two hours before kickoff, when Tomlinson arrived at Qualcomm and saw a purple bag in his locker with a note that read "Please Open Immediately." Inside was a box that he recognized as a present from his wife, LaTorsha.
"I thought it was going to be a necklace," LaDainian said later. "It was a [positive] pregnancy test. It was pretty special."
The Tomlinsons met as students at TCU and have been married since 2003. Two years later LaTorsha had a miscarriage, and in the years that followed the couple has apparently been eager to start a family.
After learning last Tuesday that she was expecting, LaTorsha hatched a plot to surprise her husband on game day. "I had no clue," LaDainian said. "She probably planned it all out [from the start]."
It was a game plan for the ages: After opening the box the stunned halfback called LaTorsha and told her, "You're amazing. You're amazing." His emotion was palpable: "I actually cried for about five minutes," he said.
Then Daddy put on his hard hat and put in a hard day of work, running with a crispness and authority he hasn't displayed since late in the '08 season.
L.T. carried 24 times for 96 yards, increasing his career total to 12,145 while moving past Thurman Thomas and Franco Harris and into 12th on the league's all-time rushing charts. His two touchdowns (he also had a three-yard scoring run early in the second quarter) pushed him ahead of Marcus Allen; he now stares up only at Jerry Rice(notes) and Emmitt Smith on the TD list.
Tomlinson might not have borne a complete resemblance to the player who tore up the league during his MVP season three years ago, but he was effective enough to provide a jolt to his Chargers teammates and fans, all of whom are beginning to believe that San Diego (6-3) might, in fact, be a legitimate contender.
That notion would have seemed laughable four weeks ago after the Chargers suffered a 34-23 defeat to the Denver Broncos at Qualcomm. At that point Denver was 6-0 and held a 3½-game lead over San Diego (2-3), and the Chargers' run of three consecutive AFC West titles seemed almost certain to end.
Since then the Chargers have run off four consecutive victories, including a stirring, last-minute comeback triumph against the New York Giants in Week 9. The Broncos, meanwhile, have dropped three games in a row, including Sunday's 27-17 upset at the hands of the Washington Redskins.
Now the rivals have identical 6-3 records and are tied atop the division heading into Sunday's rematch at Invesco Field. There's no question where the momentum lies.
"When you see L.T. doing what he's doing out there, it tells us that everything's going our way," said Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie(notes), who sealed Sunday's victory with an end-zone interception of Donovan McNabb(notes) on the final play. "It helps out so much, in so many ways."
The Chargers, who went into the game against Philly with the league's lowest-rated rushing attack, no longer rely on Tomlinson to carry them. The offense revolves around quarterback Philip Rivers(notes), who had another terrific game on Sunday (20 of 25, 231 yards, two TDs, no interceptions), and coach Norv Turner's play-calling, which was at its fluid, unpredictable best against the Eagles.
Yet San Diego needs some semblance of a running game to be an elite team, and Sunday was a huge step forward. The truth is that Tomlinson's biggest impediment is not ineffectiveness as much as it is injury – durability has been an on-and-off issue since the '07 playoffs, something not uncommon for a back of his age.
Since spraining his right ankle in the Chargers' season-opening victory over the Oakland Raiders, Tomlinson has struggled to find his stride. The ankle has steadily improved, but he went into Sunday's game with a bruised hip, which made his strong effort even more impressive.
"I mean, gosh, there's so much that goes into running the football," Rivers said. "There are so many different fits and creases and people who could've blocked this way or that way. We all know it. L.T. knows it. It's just a matter of sticking with the running game and getting it to where it needs to be.
"The biggest thing [Sunday] that helped was a 14-0 lead. We got ourselves in good down-and-distance situations and it came together. The guy's been battling all year – the first thing that happened in Week 1 is he hurt the ankle. It's been a combination of a lot of things, and very little of it has been L.T."
Tomlinson undoubtedly hopes that Sunday can be a springboard for a strong second half of the season, a successful playoff run and a chance to continue his career in San Diego until he decides he's ready to step away. But the man is a realist – the Chargers seriously considered releasing him after last season before bringing him back with a restructured (but not reduced) contract, and there's no guarantee he'll return in 2010.
After the previous Sunday's stirring victory at Giants Stadium, Tomlinson sounded like a veteran who knew the finish line was near. "I've been through a lot in my career; it's hard work," Tomlinson told the Union-Tribune. "I don't want to say I'm coming to the end. But I don't know if I'll ever be in this stadium again. You cherish certain moments. That's one I'll remember forever."
When I asked him about those comments Sunday, L.T. did his best to downplay the headed-toward-retirement overtones, saying, "I just think year-to-year. As old as I am, the strangest thing is I just keep scoring touchdowns."
The second one he scored Sunday could've been seamlessly spliced into a highlight film from '06. L.T. took a handoff from Rivers, made a quick cut inside and zipped past a cavalcade of Eagles defenders, two of whom dove fruitlessly at his shadow. It was his longest touchdown run in more than a year – and, of course, it was steeped in personal significance.
As he and LaTorsha prepare to welcome their LaSomething into the world, let the record show that the future father can still play this kid's game at a high level.
"I think I'm still effective, and I think that's all that counts," Tomlinson said afterward. "I still find a way to help this team win."
That's a reason for Chargers fans to rejoice. L.T., of course, has something far more important to celebrate.
So forgive the man if he's a bit emotional. If all goes well, he and his wife will soon be somewhere they haven't been before.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• As much as the 1972 Dolphins grew to dislike Bill Belichick as his New England Patriots matched their undefeated regular season two years ago, they may detest him even more after his shocking gamble (see Two Things I Can’t Comprehend) helped the Colts steal a 35-34 victory over the Pats to improve to 9-0. With the Saints (9-0) also surviving a surprisingly stiff test from the Rams (1-8) – St. Louis had a shot to reach the end zone for a game-winning score before succumbing 28-23 at the Edward Jones Dome – the obligatory champagne toast could be delayed for awhile. Indy has road clashes at Baltimore and Houston before returning home to face the Titans and Broncos. New Orleans travels to Tampa Bay before facing the Pats at home, followed by away games at Washington and Atlanta. As much as I enjoyed viewing Sunday’s Colts-Patriots thriller with good company at a happening Pacific Beach bar, I just wish I could’ve watched it with Bob Kuechenberg, the grumpiest man alive.
• As a former linebackers coach for the Steelers and defensive coordinator of the Ravens – and the mastermind behind the Baltimore D’s record-setting Super Bowl season of 2000 – Marvin Lewis has seen his share of hard-hitting football. That’s why, when he tells me (as he did via text message early Monday morning; he was reporting to work after virtually no sleep, while I was still immersed in my Sunday shift) that Cincinnati’s 18-12 victory at Pittsburgh on Sunday was “one of the most physical games I have ever witnessed,” the Bengals’ coach has my full attention. Let’s think about this for a minute: Cincinnati (7-2) outslugged the defending Super Bowl-champion Steelers (6-3), who happened to be coming off their most impressive effort of ’09, and won without scoring an offensive touchdown. Cedric Benson(notes) hurt his hip and carried only seven times; Carson Palmer(notes) and Chad Ochocinco(notes) had quiet outings. And yet the Bengals took control of the AFC North by completing a season sweep of the Steelers and improving their division record to 5-0. And realistically, Cincy could be 8-1 – it took a freakish deflected pass to give the Broncos a victory over the Bengals in Week 1. The Steelers or Ravens (4-4) could still rise up to win the division, but I have a hard time believing that Sunday’s game wasn’t a very significant statement on Cincinnati’s part. “It was amazing,” Lewis said. “Toe to toe.”
• The Packers still haven’t solved their offensive issues, but Green Bay (5-4) is back in the postseason conversation thanks to its revitalized defense, which completely shut down the Cowboys in a 17-7 victory at Lambeau Field. After having allowed 38 points in each of their previous two games, an emotional defeat to Brett Favre(notes) and the Vikings and an embarrassing loss to the Bucs, the Packers gave up only a meaningless Tony Romo(notes) to Roy Williams touchdown pass with 38 seconds remaining. Leading the charge was cornerback Charles Woodson(notes), who had nine tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and a diving interception in front of Green Bay’s end zone. When Woodson swooped in from the blindside and dislodged the ball from Romo on a crushing hit in the fourth quarter, and teammate Clay Matthews(notes) recovered at the Dallas 3, Cowboys coach Wade Phillips threw the challenge flag. I suspect that Woodson started having bad “Tuck Rule” flashbacks. (Phillips was trying to challenge the fumble’s recovery, believing a Dallas player had gained control of it, but was told the play wasn’t reviewable.) Don’t get Woodson, or me, started.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Simply looking at McNabb’s numbers – 35-of-55, 450 yards, two TDs and the desperation interception to Cromartie on the final play – it’s tough to ponder how the Eagles had just nine points heading into the fourth quarter before mounting a furious comeback effort. It fell short, largely because of missed opportunities earlier. Philly has serious short-yardage shortcomings, something that seems to have made coach Andy Reid alarmingly conservative (call him the anti-Belichick). He settled for David Akers(notes) field goals on fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the second quarter and on fourth-and-1 from the San Diego 7 in the third quarter (though the Eagles trailed 21-6 at the time). When I talked to McNabb after the game, he refused to second-guess Reid’s risk-averse strategy. “[Going for it] sounds good after the game,” the quarterback said, “but you’ve got to be smart.” It was a sobering defeat for the Eagles (5-4), who’ve now lost two consecutive games. Mindful that I wrote off Philly early and often last season before McNabb led the Eagles on an inspired run that ended just short of a Super Bowl appearance, I asked him if the current slump reminded him of last year’s lull. “It’s a different year,” he said. “You go through adversity every year, but this is a different team. The thing is, we have so much talent here. We’ll put it together. It’s scary how far we can go.” McNabb also had kind words about Tomlinson; the two stars had an amiable pregame conversation during which they found plenty of common ground. “We sort of have had similar careers,” McNabb said, “but like I told him, sometimes in life people just want to see change until you’re gone – and then they realize maybe we shouldn’t have wanted you to go. I told him, ‘The only thing you’ll be remembered by is your body of work.’ The guy is third all time [in touchdowns], and he’s had a young career. Everyone says he’s getting old and he’s not the same L.T. He looked pretty effective [Sunday].”
• One huge bummer from Sunday’s game at Qualcomm: As Tomlinson enjoyed a revival, his Eagles counterpart, Brian Westbrook(notes), suffered a second concussion in three weeks. Knowing what I know about the seriousness of such ailments, my initial instinct is that he shouldn’t play again in ’09. Give Reid credit for what seemed to be a very appropriate reaction. “In these types of situations, football is secondary,” Reid said during his postgame news conference. “We’ve got to look at this kid and for his future and make sure everything’s OK for him before he gets back out there.” I know there are injuries every week, but Sunday was a particularly bad day: In addition to Benson’s hip injury, the Cincy-Pittsburgh game saw Steelers safety Troy Polamalu(notes) leave early with a knee injury. The Panthers, who came through with an inspired upset of the Falcons, lost Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross(notes) (broken ankle) for the season, while the Falcons’ star halfback, Michael Turner(notes), left with an ankle injury that could keep him out a few weeks. Dolphins halfback Ronnie Brown(notes) also suffered an ankle injury. And the Saints likely lost starting cornerback Tracy Porter(notes) for the year with a knee injury that the team fears is a torn ACL.
• Oh, I should mention that there was one other significant injury: Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) sat out the second half of the defeat to the Redskins after injuring his ankle and left FedEx Field on crutches. Uh-oh. Orton struggled in the previous week’s defeat to the Steelers, but he threw for 193 yards and two touchdowns in two quarters against the 'Skins, who limited his backup, Chris Simms(notes), to three completions in 13 attempts for 13 yards (with one interception). Even if Orton can play against the Chargers, it won’t be easy for Denver to reverse its slide. When Cromartie told me after Sunday’s game that the current matchup with the Broncos “feels like the last game of last season" (a 52-21 Chargers victory at Qualcomm that clinched the AFC West and knocked Denver out of the playoffs), I was down with the analogy. Say what you will about Jay Cutler(notes) and his recent struggles, but here’s one way in which Denver undeniably misses him: If the Broncos fall behind by a significant margin, they’re not especially equipped to mount a comeback. I still believe that Denver defense is legit; it had best show up on Sunday.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That a rival U-12 boys AYSO team in my town was disqualified from the season-ending tournament, apparently for using an ineligible player in a spirited 1-1 tie Saturday with my son's team (for which my wife is an assistant coach). I don't even know what to say to the coaches of the offending team. First, are you kidding? Is that something that any adult should be proud of – and what kind of message does that send to your impressionable kids? Secondly, thanks! The DQ, coupled with my son's team's dramatic 2-1 victory later Saturday, vaulted the Ninjas into Sunday morning's semifinals. Not that the boys didn't earn it on their own – and I'm proud to report that our "ringer," a Spanish ball-wizard named Miguel (whose father is a visiting professor at our local university), was actually a legal player. (For more on the Ninjas' finish and Miguel's role in it, see the bottom of the column.)
2. Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28 with a little more than two minutes left and a 34-28 lead. Actually, part of me can comprehend it. Belichick was uneasy about punting the ball and giving Peyton Manning(notes) a chance to drive down the field for a winning touchdown, and he fully believed the Pats could get the two yards and close out the game – and, if they couldn't, that they didn't deserve to prevail. It's an arrogant approach, but I admire it. Further, it should be noted that Belichick, because of his unquestioned job security and status as a future Hall of Famer, is one of the few people in his profession in position to make such an audacious move. I've also seen the statistical studies suggesting that NFL coaches are far too wimpy when it comes to fourth-down calls – that the percentages indicate that going for it is often the smarter option, even when conventional wisdom suggests otherwise. And I know that Brady's completion to Kevin Faulk(notes) occurred very close to the first-down marker and that New England might have gotten a dubious spot (which Belichick wasn't in position to challenge because the Pats had already blown their timeouts). And yet, that part of me is being drowned out by the part screaming, "Did that just actually happen?!" I mean, if you're a Patriots player – like the anonymous (and incredulous) one with whom I communicated Sunday night – how can you not question that dubious decision? Sure, it was just one game, but this is the kind of disappointment that could have enduring ramifications. For one thing, while Belichick might have shown an immense amount of faith in his offense, he was essentially telling his defensive players he didn't trust them to preserve a lead. It was no shock that they put up precious little resistance against Manning and the Colts once they got the ball back after Faulk was stopped short. And I have to wonder whether this was a case of a very smart coach trying to prove to the world that he's operating on a higher plane of understanding than the rest of us. To be sure, I know I'm not the only one. I'll spare you the barrage of texts I got Sunday from former Pats players and others with ties to the current team, but I'll share one opinion from future Hall of Famer Warren Sapp(notes): "NFL Ain't a Madden Video Game Punt the D@mn Ball."
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes), that was some hellacious handiwork with 30 seconds remaining in the Raiders' 16-10 defeat to the Chiefs at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, trying to pull a nice pass from Bruce Gradkowski(notes) into your chest at the 10-yard line and instead lifting it over your head and into the waiting arms of Kansas City Chiefs safety Mike Brown(notes) for the game-clinching interception. Call it the signature moment of a horrific afternoon and regrettable rookie season that has done nothing but validate the opinions of all the NFL draft-weekend skeptics who thought you were a ridiculous reach when Oakland made you the seventh overall pick. Though you've been a starter all year long, you've managed just six catches for 96 yards for an offense in desperate search of a playmaker. Remember all the people who scoffed at offensive coordinator Tom Walsh during Art Shell's second stint as the Raiders' coach in 2006? Well, Mr. Bed and Breakfast looks downright progressive compared to the current brain trust. Sunday was Tom Cable's 21st game as head coach, and the 16th in which Oakland has scored one offensive touchdown or fewer (in half of those 16 games, the Raiders haven't scored any offensive TDs). Nine games into the '09 campaign, the Silver and Black has managed seven offensive scores. Seven! Coming off a bye week, the Raiders (2-7) put up just 10 points against Kansas City (2-7), which has the third-lowest-ranked defense in the AFC. Be it Cable or Heyward-Bey, all I can say is this: Al Davis, you sure know how to pick ‘em.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Tough one today but we will see them again!!!"
– Email Sunday night from Brady, anticipating a rematch with Manning in January
"Miguel to greg GOAL!!"
– Text Sunday afternoon from my daughter describing an apparent tiebreaking score by her younger brother in the fourth quarter of the third-place game of the season-ending tournament
– Sobering text a few seconds later from my daughter, who kept the play-by-play going through two tense overtime periods
– Text 26 minutes later from my daughter. This time the goal stood up.