Like the lamest wedding toast or the sappiest eulogy, LaDainian Tomlinson's first words as a New York Jet last week touched on all the requisite points.
• He is nowhere closed to being done.
• Admittedly, 2009 wasn't great, but the circumstances dictated such.
• What was lost in speed has been replaced by wisdom.
• Revenge will be sweet.
• Don't doubt the heart of a champion.
"The things that happened in San Diego, everything was taken away from me," he said. "There wasn't an emphasis on running the football anymore, my best fullback was gone, the linemen were pass blocking and it was a passing quarterback and a passing coach. So, the situation's kind of misleading when you look on film."
The Jets want to believe Tomlinson. Football fans want to believe Tomlinson. I want to believe Tomlinson, a genuinely decent man whose replica Chargers jersey is worn proudly by my 3-year-old son. In professional sports, few storylines rival the life-affirming saga of a discarded superstar rising from the Tomb of Gavin Grey for that blessed final moment of glory. Think Ray Knight and Kurt Warner; think Pete Sampras and George Foreman. Think Roy Hobbs. We want to believe that old age isn't necessarily old age. We want to think that done isn't always done.
In short, we crave sports miracles.
In reality, they rarely happen.
With the long history of superstar running backs serving as our gauge, LaDainian Tomlinson, who will turn 31 in June, has begun an extraordinarily ugly portion of his career, one where comparisons to Eric Dickerson and Emmitt Smith will continue -- only with painful postscripts attached.
On July 7, 1993, the Atlanta Falcons acquired Dickerson from the Los Angeles Raiders, hoping a change of scenery would enliven the NFL's second all-time leading rusher. "I don't feel 32 [years old], and when people see me on the field, they won't believe I am," Dickerson said at the time. "I know what the calendar says, but I feel like under the right conditions I could still gain 1,000 yards or more."
In four games with the Falcons, Dickerson rushed for 91 yards on 26 carries. He never played in the NFL again.
When Smith signed with the Arizona Cardinals before the 2003 season, the city of Phoenix was agog with visions of No. 22 cutting through holes and bursting into the end zone. Sure, the NFL's all-time rushing king was 33. Sure, he'd lost a step. Or two. Or three. But Smith ensured brilliance. "I expect myself to be a 1,000-yard back every year," he said, going on to predict a 1,200-yard season in '03. "I just have to stay healthy, obviously, and everybody has to do their job."
In two years with the Cardinals, Smith ran for 1,193 yards. He became a somber reminder of how not to retire.
"Emmitt had some flashes of his old self," says Johnny Roland, the Cardinals running backs coach in 2003. "But he had obviously lost something."
Are there exceptions to the post-30 running back rule? Sure. Marcus Allen wrapped up his NFL career with five productive seasons as a Chief, and Ottis Anderson ran for 1,023 yards as a 32-year-old Giant in 1989. In both cases, however, the rushers reinvented themselves, forgoing speed and burst for raw, straight-ahead physicality.
Tomlinson's career is one built upon cutting hard through holes; on slashing past tacklers in a blur of Flash-like speed and exploding up a field. Though he packs 220 pounds on a 5-foot-10 frame, Tomlinson will never be confused with Earl Campbell (who, incidentally, was traded by the Oilers to the Saints for a first-round draft pick in 1984. The results: 1 ½ seasons, 833 yards).
Instead, the best comparison may well be to the great Tony Dorsett, the Dallas Cowboys halfback who, in the aftermath of a subpar 1987 season, found himself at a crossroads. Having rushed for 456 yards after being supplanted by the younger, stronger Herschel Walker, Dorsett signed with the Denver Broncos, bringing hope to a team in desperate need of a ballcarrier.
Though 34, Dorsett seemed ready to accomplishing the impossible. He dismissed the late-career shortcomings of Campbell and O.J. Simpson, noting that both men were battered mules with weathered bodies. He dismissed Franco Harris' embarrassing eight games with the Seahawks in 1984 (68 carries, 170 yards), chalking up the futility to an unfamiliar offensive scheme.
"Look, I feel great," Dorsett said. "Mentally I couldn't feel better. I'm focused on what I have to do. When you talk about Tony Dorsett you have to ask this: What can he bring to the picnic?"
Answer: 703 yards, five touchdowns -- and yet another in the long line of epitaphs reading PAST HIS PRIME.