June 21, 2012
One time star running back Ladainian Tomlinson signed a one day contract with his original team, the San Diego Chargers, on Monday and announced his retirement from the NFL in a ceremony held at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium a day later. One of the more dominant runners of the past decade, Tomlinson walks away from the game after accumulating a massive list of individual awards that will doubtlessly lead him to the Hall of Fame as soon as he becomes eligible. However there is one thing missing from that pile of accolades and achievements – a Superbowl ring, and that is really the way it should be. While most around the NFL, particularly in San Diego, will remember Tomlinson as an all time great, he should also be remembered as what he was – a whiner and a loser.
Statistically Ladainian Tomlinson is one of the greatest running backs to ever play in the NFL. His 13,684 career rushing yards trail only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, and Curtis Martin on the all time list, and his 162 total touchdowns are the third most ever. He scored 145 of those touchdowns on the ground, the second highest total in NFL history, and he even passed for seven in his illustrious career. He, along with Marty Schottenheimer and Drew Brees, was one of the key figures in bringing San Diego back to relevance after a prolonged stretch of misery in the late 90s-early 2000s, and will likely be remembered as one of, if not the best Charger ever. There was a point early in the decade when he seemed unstoppable, scoring a single season record 28 rushing touchdowns in 2004, and dominating the league in a way that few have. However, while his regular season achievements are mind boggling, at the end of the day Ladainian Tomlinson was a loser.
Tomlinson spent the first three years of his career putting up huge numbers while the Chargers continued to struggle. However in 2004, with the emergence of Drew Brees and Antonio Gates, the Chargers finally turned things around, posting a 12-4 record enroute to an AFC West Division title and playoff date with the 10-6 New York Jets. As one does with great players one expected Tomlinson to up his game in the postseason, but it was not to be. The Chargers forced the ball to Tomlinson over and over again, giving him 26 carries in all, but the more they fed him the ball the worse he played, managing a meager 80 yards on 3.1 yards-per-carry. This after a regular season where he set the single season touchdown record. This was really LT’s career in a nutshell – a dominant regular season player who, when the game got big, came up small.
People may think that this is biased. That this is a pro-Patriots website taking a shot at Tomlinson because he and the Patriots never exactly hit it off. However the stats indicate that Tomlinson was a playoff choker. He had one good playoff game, against the Patriots in 2006, when he carried the ball 23 times for 123 yards and two touchdowns. However San Diego lost that game thanks to Troy Brown stripping Marlon McCree on a would be game sealing interception and LT never had a good playoff game again. He never topped 100 yards in the playoffs after that loss to New England. In fact, he never came close. Even if one includes that great game against New England he still averaged well under 50 yards rushing in his 10 career playoff games. That fact is that, when the heat was on, Tomlinson folded, again and again.
People will argue that it is unfair to blame a running back for never winning a championship or for not producing in the postseason. Many will point to Barry Sanders, possibly the best the running back ever, who won one playoff game in his otherwise outstanding career. People will say that Sanders is an all time great even though he put up garbage numbers in the playoffs, only topping 100 yards once in six career playoff games, and posting a whopping -1 yards in Detroit’s 1994 loss to the Green Bay Packers, so why isn’t Tomlinson? However people miss the fact that Barry Sanders really never played on a good team. In fact he never played on a team that ever even had a real offense. Every team in the league knew that all they had to do was stop Barry and they had stopped the Lions. His quarterbacks were Dave Kreig and Scott Mitchell. Everyone knew Detroit wasn’t going to beat anyone by throwing the ball. All teams had to do was stack the box and contain Barry because there was no way that Scott Mitchell or Dave Kreig were going to beat them. This was not the case for Tomlinson.
While Sanders spent his career playing on awful teams with quarterbacks that people can barely remember, the balance on Tomlinson’s career was spent on very good Charger teams with offenses led by Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. It’s not like Brees and Rivers were not threats to pass. It’s not like teams were stacking the box to stop LT and he was in a no-win situation because no one had to worry about Antonio Gates. He had ample opportunity to be successful. He just never got it done. He routinely came up small for the Chargers in the postseason despite playing on some stacked Charger teams, then bolted for to the New York Jets the second his role started changing in San Diego. The Jets made it back to the AFC Championship game in 2010 and handed him the ball on 4th and goal from the one yard line for the would be go ahead score. But it was the playoffs, so the man with the second most rushing touchdowns in NFL history failed to get into the end zone. That may seem surprising, but it shouldn’t. It was LT. That’s what he always did in the playoffs.
Ladainian Tomlinson was a great player. His numbers alone will get him into the Hall of Fame. He’s fifth all time in career rush yards, ahead of players like Jerome Bettis, Jim Brown, Marshall Faulk, Marcus Allen, Franco Harris, John Riggins, and Corey Dillion, but he wasn’t better than any of them. He was recently featured on NFL Network’s “Top Ten Players Who Never Played in a Superbowl.” While he certainly belongs on that list, he didn’t play in a Superbowl because he didn’t deserve to. If he wanted to win a championship he should have focused on playing better instead of whining every time his team invariably lost. Again, this isn’t an attempt to kick dirt on LT. He was a great player. But when a great player retires without having had a chance at a championship you generally feel sorry for them. No one should feel sorry for Tomlinson. He had a nose for the end-zone, but not when it counted. He got what he deserved.