Feeling good and finally content with a reduced role in the offense, LaDainian Tomlinson is rediscovering the joy of running as San Diego makes its move in the AFC West
November 23, 2009

When LaDainian Tomlinson arrived at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium before Sunday's game against Philadelphia, the Chargers' running back had a package waiting at his locker from his wife, LaTorsha. The instructions on it were to open immediately, so Tomlinson parted the top of the cardboard box and found a pregnancy test amid the colored tissue paper tucked into a purple bag. WE'RE HAVING A BABY! read the note from LaTorsha, who had found out that she's expecting the couple's first child.

Tomlinson was so visibly choked up that teammate Darren Sproles came over and gave him a hug, but the ninth-year back used the news as added motivation once the game started. He set or tied his season highs in carries (24), rushing yards (96) and scores (two) while moving into sole possession of third place on the NFL's alltime touchdown list, with 146. Tomlinson also climbed to 12th place in career rushing yards with 12,145 as San Diego won its fourth in a row, setting up an AFC West showdown against the Broncos this Sunday in Denver. Both teams are 6--3.

It was the first time in weeks that the Chargers' ground game had shown any life—San Diego ranks last in the NFL in rushing—but as warm and fuzzy as the LT story line was, the cold, hard fact is that the Bolts' offense no longer runs through number 21, who was one of the game's dominant backs through his first seven seasons, a stretch in which San Diego ranked in the top 10 in rushing in all but his rookie year. This team now goes as quarterback Philip Rivers goes, something Tomlinson accepted only grudgingly last year but now embraces.

"If the train is moving one way, there's no sense in trying to hold it back and take it the other direction," Tomlinson said late Sunday afternoon, standing in a narrow hallway just yards from the spot where in 2006 he scored his 29th touchdown of the season to break the NFL record. "If I was going to talk about being a team guy, I had to walk the walk."

Age and injuries have slowed Tomlinson over the past two years. In June he turned 30, and now he says he realizes that the maturation of the passing game can keep him fresher and make him more effective by lightening his workload.

The Chargers so respect their future Hall of Fame back that Rivers and coach Norv Turner choose their words carefully when discussing the evolution of the offense. Still, one look at San Diego's final drive on Sunday says categorically what the quarterback and coach will not.

After the Eagles cut a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit to 28--23 with 7:12 to play, Turner put the ball in Rivers's hot right hand. The sixth-year pro, who ranks in the top 10 in most major passing categories this season, had a completion for 10 yards on second-and-five; for 17 on third-and-six; and for 18 on third-and-two. Overall on the drive he was 5 for 6 for 54 yards, and the Chargers controlled the ball for nearly seven minutes before Nate Kaeding kicked a 29-yard field goal with 30 seconds left in the game.

"Big plays," Turner acknowledged later. "We truly do want to be a complete offense, but we also know that based on the trend in this league and the pressure defense and the zone blitz defense, [opponents] can stop the run if they want to."

When Turner interviewed for his job after Marty Schottenheimer was fired in February 2007, he stressed the need to develop Rivers, the No. 4 overall pick in 2004, who was entering his second season as a starter after sitting behind Drew Brees for two years. Turner believed the offense needed more balance after having been one of the most heavily run-oriented attacks in the league under his predecessor.

Indeed, over the last three seasons San Diego's running and passing games have moved in dramatically different directions. The Chargers have gone from 32.6 rushing attempts per game in 2006 (second most in the league) to 23.3 this season (28th). The run game's productivity has dropped by more than half over that span, from 161.1 yards per game (also second) to a dead-last 75.1 in '09.

Not all of the decline is due to Turner's philosophy; some comes down to injury. Early in the 2008 season left tackle Marcus McNeill missed two games and center Nick Hardwick missed three to injuries. This season Hardwick has been sidelined for eight games with a sprained left ankle, and rookie right guard Louis Vasquez missed a couple of games with a sprained knee.

But Tomlinson has had his struggles too. Scouts contend that he's lost some of the burst that helped him reach 11,000 rushing yards faster than every back in history except Eric Dickerson, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. And perhaps out of frustration, he sometimes appears so eager to hit the hole that he doesn't give his linemen time to get on their blocks.

Still, a successful running game is about attitude almost as much as ability, and the Chargers haven't been as committed to the ground game as they were under Schottenheimer, who against the Raiders once called a dozen straight power runs. Turner believes an offense should take what the defense gives rather than try to impose its will—which explains why Tomlinson carried the ball so often against Philadelphia. The Eagles were intent on taking away the downfield passing game from San Diego, which entered Sunday with 34 completions of 20 or more yards, tied for third in the league. Philadelphia's secondary was depleted during the week when cornerback Ellis Hobbs was lost to a season-ending neck injury and nickelback Joselio Hanson was handed a four-game league suspension for violating the policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Consequently defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who loves to blitz, backed off the pressure and protected against the big play.

"They're vertical in the passing game," McDermott says. "Normally my [approach] to them would be to stop the running game, but having faced Coach Turner several times over the years, he's a guy who likes to win throwing the ball."

Stopping that vertical passing game is no small challenge. Turner's receiving corps looks like a basketball front line: tall and talented. All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, who's 6'4", is averaging 13.6 yards per catch this year, the most since he became a full-time starter in 2004. Fifth-year wideout Vincent Jackson, 6'5", is emerging as one of the league's elite receivers and is on pace to significantly surpass his career highs of 59 receptions, 1,089 yards and seven touchdowns set last season. Malcolm Floyd, 6'5", broke into the starting lineup two games ago and is averaging 20.3 yards on 16 receptions. Dangerous third wideout Legedu Naanee, 6'2", scored his first career touchdown on Sunday.

But Turner believes he shouldn't rely too heavily on any single approach. While Tomlinson may not have the hyper burst that made him one of the game's greatest threats, he can still grind out yards when allowed to get in a rhythm—and get through creases, such as on his 20-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The play illustrated the importance of timing between the veteran back and his linemen. After Tomlinson took the handoff, he seemed likely to be dropped for a loss deep in the backfield, as defensive end Trent Cole came free off the left edge. But left guard Kris Dielman pulled and kicked out on Cole just before the defender got to the ball, and a fraction of a second later Tomlinson was past them and off toward the end zone. As he crossed the goal line, he leaped into the air, landed and squatted in front of a wall of cameras, feigning taking their picture before turning back toward the sideline.

Such moments are becoming rarer for Tomlinson. He battled a sprained left knee that forced him out of the AFC Championship Game in January 2008 after just a few snaps, then struggled with toe and groin injuries in 2008. Tomlinson has 46 100-yard rushing games in his career, but only eight of those have come under Turner, none in the last 15 games. "I think I'm still effective, and that's all that counts," he says. "I still find a way to help this team win."

Most defenses still open against San Diego with the idea of stopping the run—which has helped create passing lanes for Rivers because the safety is low in run support. While Tomlinson acknowledges his diminished role, he says the shift was made easier by the continued development of Rivers, who has thrown 50 TD passes since the start of the 2008 season. "It's always tough to accept something less than what you're used to," Tomlinson says. "But this is good for us. It helps the team, and it can help me, knowing I don't have to always get 20-something carries. But I'm still waiting for the time when I get 15 carries for 120. That's next."

In the meantime Tomlinson is counting his blessings. He has won rushing titles and a league MVP award, broken countless team and league records and is headed to the Hall of Fame when his career ends. He's set for life financially and has a beautiful and supportive wife. All that's missing from his wish list are children and a Super Bowl ring.

Could both arrive in the same year? Says Tomlinson, "God works in mysterious ways."

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McDermott protected against the big play, knowing that Turner (right) "likes to win throwing the ball."

PHOTOPhotograph by PETER READ MILLERYOUNG AGAIN Having heard earlier in the day that he was an expectant father, Tomlinson added some playfulness to his third-quarter touchdown celebration. TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by PETER READ MILLERBOLT ACTION Rivers (above) has been firing away more than ever this season, to emerging targets such as the rangy Naanee (11). PHOTO

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