LaDainian Tomlinson tells his life story in tattoos, from the branches of the family tree that cover his back to the pair of team logos inked on his calves. On his right leg is the oval of the Jets, and beneath it the imprint 2010--, which covers the continuation of his Hall of Fame career and a final push for a Super Bowl ring. The left leg carries a lightning bolt above 2001--2010, the years in which Tomlinson became the greatest running back San Diego has ever known, if not an entirely fulfilled one. "He truly wanted to give a championship to the city because the people opened up their arms to him, but when he left, he moved on," says New York offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who coached in San Diego from 2002 to '05. "I got a kick out of the tattoos when I saw the dates. That just shows you what kind of a pro he is. He closed that chapter. This is a new one."
This is an article from the Oct. 31, 2011 issue
Tomlinson's past and present collided on Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., where the Jets pulled out a 27--21 victory in the style that has marked the rollicking Rex Ryan era. San Diego, meanwhile, blew an 11-point third-quarter lead and surrendered 162 rushing yards to a team that had been in search of its old ground-and-pound identity. The Chargers came in 4--1, prepared to make a statement, and left facing what has become a familiar line of questioning.
Are they tough enough to win a Super Bowl? Especially if they have to beat a physical team on the East Coast during the playoffs? "I still feel like we're a better football team," said San Diego linebacker Takeo Spikes. "But it's all about who's the best football team that day."
Tomlinson, who woke up on Sunday morning vomiting and suffering from flu-like symptoms, accounted for just 51 yards before being pulled in the third quarter, but his presence hovered over the game. In the week before kickoff, Ryan anointed Tomlinson his starter and named him and former Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie captains for the opening coin flip. Though LT was measured in his comments last week, he was stung when San Diego released him after the 2009 season. "People thought I was starting to complain when we weren't running the ball that much," Tomlinson says. "The identity of the team was changing."
Says former Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal, who blocked for Tomlinson for five seasons, "They turned over the team to Philip Rivers. It wasn't LT's anymore."
In New York, Tomlinson is appreciated both for his running and receiving skills (he is third on the team in catches) and for his leadership, including his fiery pregame speeches at the center of a raucous Jets scrum—out-of-body experiences for a normally placid player. "That really never has been my personality to be that guy," Tomlinson says, "but sometimes you're called upon to be something for your team."
Against the Chargers, Tomlinson was lifted by his teammates, with Mark Sanchez throwing three touchdown passes to Plaxico Burress, Shonn Greene racking up 112 yards on 20 carries and Darrelle Revis picking off Rivers to set up a touchdown. As the Jets' locker room emptied late on Sunday afternoon, Tomlinson lingered by his stall, spent but happy. He had accomplished a small goal on the way to what he hopes is a larger achievement this winter.
"I'd be lying if I said this didn't add some satisfaction," Tomlinson said.
The 32-year-old Tomlinson is the bridge between two old AFL franchises built in the image of their coaches. The contrast in the styles between the bombastic Ryan and the mellow Norv Turner was never clearer than in the days leading up to the game. During his Wednesday conference call with the opposing team's beat writers, Ryan quickly found an opening to pound his chest. In 2007, when he was the Ravens' defensive coordinator, he'd been a candidate for the San Diego coaching job. Instead the Chargers chose Turner, an offensive expert who'd won two Super Bowls as Cowboys coordinator. In a typical burst of braggadocio, Ryan told the San Diego reporters last week that had the Chargers hired him, they would have won two Super Bowl rings. Ryan later called Turner to apologize, but he could not undo the sentiment that has shadowed San Diego teams of recent vintage: that they are supreme talents and chronic underachievers.
In 2006, Marty Schottenheimer's final season as coach, the Chargers went 14--2 only to lose a divisional playoff game at home to New England. The following year, Turner's first, they advanced to the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots in Foxborough—game-time temperature 23¬∫, with 17-mph winds—and lost again. The Steelers eliminated the Chargers in Pittsburgh following the '08 season (26¬∫, light snow), while the Jets did the job in San Diego the next season.
Since the NFL-AFL merger, the Chargers are 29-49-1 on the road against the teams now in the AFC East and AFC North. More recently, they're a meager 8--18 since 2000, including 1--4 at New England, 0--4 at Pittsburgh and 0--2 at Baltimore.
"My approach was, you have to build a complete team so you can adjust and play whoever you're playing," Turner says. "When we went to New England [for the AFC Championship Game], that was a physical, hard-fought game. Philip was running around on one leg, [tight end] Antonio [Gates] was on one leg, and LT didn't play in the game. Your goal is to have your guys be the best team you can be. Then hopefully you have some good luck."
Of the Chargers' trouble playing East Coast powers on their own turf, cornerback Quentin Jammer says, "Maybe it's the six-hour flight. You get in [on Friday], get up the next day, go through walk-through, meetings and film, then play the next day. If I had to say, it would be the trip across the country."
After Ryan's zinger—and Turner's response that Ryan could add his two hypothetical Chargers rings to the two he has promised Jets fans and failed to deliver—never has a game felt more like a defense of coaches' honor. And when those are the rules of engagement, Ryan is often the master. "Certain coaches have an ability to get the best out of their players," Tomlinson says, "and I think Rex does that better than anybody."
Having already lost at New England in Week 2, the Chargers knew what was at stake. When they jumped out to a 21--10 halftime lead, giving better than they got against Ryan's hard hitters, it appeared they'd put to rest claims that they were soft and didn't travel well. "Our guys came out and played fast," Turner said. "We came in here and had a chance to win this game against a very good football team. We have to fix the reasons we didn't win it."
The Chargers' offense never adjusted in the second half, failing to adapt when the Jets mixed up coverages with extra defensive backs. On defense San Diego could stop neither Greene nor the 6'5" Burress, who was matched against 6'1" corner Antoine Cason on three scores in the red zone. The Chargers were in control—until they weren't.
Rivers was visibly upset after the loss, his 10th in 11 road starts against the AFC East or AFC North since '07. This year he was expected to solidify his place among the game's elite QBs, but through six games he has thrown more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (seven), including two picks each in the losses to the Patriots and the Jets. His 82.3 passer rating is his lowest since he became a starter in 2006. "All I hear for six months was that the regular season didn't matter," he said. "Now everyone wants to know what is the matter? We are 4--2. We've been worse."
That's in contrast to recent seasons, when poor starts have compounded San Diego's travel woes and left the Chargers frantically chasing a playoff spot down the stretch. (This is the first season under Turner in which they've had a winning record through six games.) "You haven't had a chance to rest the people you want to rest and tweak the things you want to tweak," says former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, now an NFL Network analyst. "The Chargers have had all their chips on the table every game. They are either coming [into the postseason] wounded or fighting to get in. That's been an issue for them."
For the Chargers it's always something—wideout Vincent Jackson's holdout last season; Gates's plantar fasciitis this season; the up-and-down start to the career of running back Ryan Mathews, the 2010 first-rounder out of Fresno State who was seen as Tomlinson's replacement. He and fellow back Mike Tolbert, the Chargers' leading receiver, have become integral to San Diego's passing game, allowing Rivers a check-down option to get rid of the ball quickly. But against the Jets, Tolbert didn't catch a pass. And the ground attack, ranked 14th in the league, has yet to provide a consistent complement to Rivers, who has not looked at ease this season.
While the Chargers faced a long plane ride home, having added to the chance of yet another trip East for the playoffs (first tie-breaker for home field advantage: head-to-head record), the Jets entered their bye week on a two-game winning streak. Tomlinson hasn't said how much longer he will play, but eventually he will get a new tattoo, and another circle will close. Neal speaks to Tomlinson once a week, and he remembers their film study on off days or Friday-night steak dinners on the road or training camp trips to the local Boll Weevil restaurant for games of dominoes and spades.
"Guys like LT don't come to your team every day," Neal says.
So he tells Tomlinson to keep running, don't exhale. Not yet.