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San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson is in it for the long run

Now 30 and coming off his worst rushing season after myriad injuries, the running back says he's out to prove he's still a superstar, a breed apart from his contemporaries.

September 02, 2009|Sam Farmer

SAN DIEGO — When San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson considers his peers, the Chargers running back doesn't necessarily think about Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, Atlanta's Michael Turner or Washington's Clinton Portis.

Instead, Tomlinson thinks outside the blocks.

"Talking to Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, all these great athletes, I can relate to their mind-set," he said, relaxing at his locker after a recent practice. "I wonder sometimes why I think the way I think. Am I strange because I think I'm a different breed of guy? That I'm not going to get old? I'm not going to slow down? Am I different for thinking that? But they think the same way."

Even after two years in which an injured Tomlinson watched from the sideline as his team lost playoff games at New England and Pittsburgh, he still feels he's capable of the type of superhuman season he had in 2006 when he rushed for 1,815 yards and scored 31 touchdowns.

The question: Is L.T. still The Man in San Diego?

His question in response: Need you even ask?

"The funny thing is, when I'm out here on the field, I always expect to be just as fast as all the rest of these guys," he said. "I expect to run past them and make cuts like nobody else. I just expect that. I don't know why, I just do."

He knows there are people who doubt him, people more impressed last season by waterbug-quick Darren Sproles (whose 328 all-purpose yards in the playoff victory over Indianapolis earned him a Sports Illustrated cover), people expecting him to tail off even more now that he's 30.

"Everybody thinks he's done -- done!" said A.J. Smith, Chargers general manager. "Thirty years old, going downhill, declining. . . . Oh, I don't know about that. Be careful with the great ones when you say those things. I'm buying into that being motivation with him. He's on a mission.

"I think there's plenty of tread left on those tires."

So it's only natural the Chargers would want to goose the accelerator a bit. That's why one of Tomlinson's coaches was quick to put a magazine story in his hands this summer, one featuring Hall of Famer Jim Brown raving about Vikings star Peterson.

Consider Tomlinson's buttons pushed.

"Jim Brown was telling Peterson he's the best runner he'd seen in a long time," he said. "I was sitting there reading it thinking, 'Wow.'

"The difference with me is you can put me out on that field and there will be nothing I can't do. I won't have to come off the field. Adrian has to come off sometimes on third down. Running routes, he's still not there yet. Great downhill runner, powerful, fast, all that stuff. . . .

"But anything on that field you want me to do -- throw it, block -- I can do it. That's what I pride myself on is not having any weaknesses. And that's what makes me the best back."

Peterson was the 2008 rushing champion and has gained 3,101 yards on the ground in two NFL seasons. Tomlinson rushed for 2,581 over that same span but has averaged 63.8 receptions a season, more than tripling Peterson's 20.0.

There was no question about Tomlinson's prowess three seasons ago, when he rushed for an NFL-record 28 touchdowns and was named the league's most valuable player. His numbers tailed off the following two seasons, in part because of injuries to his knee, toe and groin. Last season, he rushed for a career-low 1,110 yards and had only two 100-yard games.

"I think every year you have to prove yourself," he said. "There's no sense in saying, 'I don't have anything to prove. I've been this and I've been that.' You were that. Now, what are you going to be this year?"

To that end, Tomlinson decided this summer to play in exhibition games for the first time since 2005. He figures that will help give him a running start heading into the season.

"I think it's just looking at the bigger picture, getting the rust off early instead of waiting until the first game," he said, having logged 12 carries in the first two games before sitting out the third. "It usually takes me two games to kind of get the rhythm and tempo and speed of the game."

Tomlinson said among the things that help him as a back, and can mitigate the physical effects of aging, is his thorough understanding of the game and the specific assignments of the 21 other players on the field. Former All-Pro running back Marshall Faulk was famous for knowing those things and has had several conversations with Tomlinson about that over the years.

"I told L.T. a long time ago -- and I could tell it in his play -- that studying not just the other team but himself so he could understand what he was tipping off to other teams, that it would help him in the long run when maybe he wasn't as fast or as strong," said Faulk, now an NFL Network analyst. "You're going to always be as smart. It's like your knowledge, you don't just lose it.

"So I think he understands now."

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