SAN DIEGO — The slashing, dazzling runs came less frequently. The yards didn’t pile up as easily as in previous seasons.
LaDainian Tomlinson was slowing down because of injuries and age, becoming less and less the face of the franchise as his role was reduced in a pass-happy offence.
On Monday, he was released by the San Diego Chargers, a franchise he helped revive with a brilliant nine-year run in which he became one of the NFL’s greatest running backs.
The move had been expected for some time. Tomlinson, one of the most beloved athletes in San Diego sports history, got the word in a meeting with team president Dean Spanos.
“I told him that in the 26 years that I’ve been in this business, it was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do,” Spanos told The Associated Press. “I’m not close to a lot of the players, but there’s a handful that I’ve been close with, and he’s probably the closest. It was really difficult to tell him. But out of respect, I wanted to tell him earlier rather than later.”
Tomlinson was due a US$2 million roster bonus in early March, which all but guaranteed he would be cut loose, as well as a $5 million salary for 2010. He still had two years left on his contract, which was reworked during a somewhat tumultuous period last off-season.
L.T. wasn’t immediately available for comment. He said after the Chargers’ playoff loss to the New York Jets that he felt he could still play for a few more seasons.
“He was one of the greatest players and people that I’ve ever had a chance to be around and he will be missed,” outside linebacker Shawne Merriman said in an email to the AP.
“What L.T. has meant to this town and to this team, in nine years, the impact he’s had both on and off the field, we may never see that again,” quarterback Philip Rivers said before accepting an award at a sports banquet Monday night. “You’re not just going to replace L.T. himself. He was more than a running back.”
General manager A.J. Smith called it “a tough day, a sad day for everybody in the organization. But it’s always tough to part ways with great players who helped you win games. It’s not a pleasant day, but we’re working through it.”
Agent Tom Condon said he’ll spend time at the forthcoming NFL combine in Indianapolis determining interest from other teams.
“I think they did us a favour in terms of releasing him before we go to the combine. That part of it was positive,” Condon told the AP. “L.T. during Super Bowl week had indicated it was time to move on.
“He’s had a Hall of Fame run there as a Charger.”
Tomlinson, who turned 30 last summer, was injured early in the 2009 season and finished with 730 yards on 223 carries for an average of 3.3 yards per carry, all career lows.
Condon doesn’t think Tomlinson is finished.
“It’s one of those things with the very, very special players, like Emmitt Smith, Marcus Allen, guys like that,” Condon said. “You can’t predict what they’re going to do. They seem to defy the odds. He keeps himself in tremendous condition. I think he feels like he can go forward for several more years.”
Tomlinson ranks eighth on the all-time rushing list with 12,490 yards. His 138 career rushing touchdowns rank second, and his 153 total touchdowns rank third.
He was the NFL’s MVP in 2006, when he set league single-season records with 31 touchdowns, including 28 rushing, and 186 points. Tomlinson won the NFL’s rushing title in 2006 and ’07.
Perhaps his most memorable moment as a Charger came on Dec. 10, 2006, when he swept into the end zone late in a game against the Denver Broncos for his third touchdown of the afternoon to break Shaun Alexander’s year-old record of 28 touchdowns.
His linemen hoisted him onto their shoulders and carried him toward the sideline, with Tomlinson holding the ball high in his right hand and waving his left index finger, while the fans chanted “L.T.! L.T.!” and “MVP! MVP!”
“I had the best view in the house on some of those awesome runs he made,” Rivers said.
“He’s just been a great player for us,” Smith said. “Also, the character, integrity, work ethic, along with his talent, have been unbelievable. He’s a Hall of Famer right now. He will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.”
Coming off a 1-15 finish in 2000, and trying to dig out from the nightmarish Ryan Leaf years, the Chargers held the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft. They sent that pick to the Atlanta Falcons on the day before the draft began for a package that included the fifth pick, which they used to select Tomlinson. The Falcons took Michael Vick with the top pick.
“When he came here in 2001, we were a struggling franchise,” Spanos said. “It’s clear that we are where we are today because of him. He truly has been the heart and soul of our team all these years, and just done an outstanding job and helped turn this franchise around into a winning franchise. It couldn’t have been done without him.”
Spanos said he and Tomlinson expressed disappointment that the player never got a chance to win a Super Bowl title.
“We came close but just never quite got there,” Spanos said.
The Chargers made five playoff appearances during Tomlinson’s time here. They advanced to the AFC championship game following the 2007 season but lost to the New England Patriots.
Tomlinson’s squeaky-clean image took a hit during that AFC championship game. Forced out early with a knee injury, Tomlinson watched glumly from the sideline, huddled in a parka and his face hidden behind the tinted visor on his helmet.
The Chargers gave an overly optimistic prognosis about his injury, announcing that he “can return,” which caused fans and commentators to question his toughness.
Tomlinson was always the most brutally honest employee in the Chargers’ organization. When he sustained a groin injury in the 2008 regular-season finale, he was more forthright with the media about its severity, causing Smith to bristle.
That groin injury sidelined Tomlinson in a divisional-round loss to Pittsburgh, the first time he missed a game due to injury in his pro career. He had been slowed earlier that season by a toe injury.
He sprained his right ankle in the 2009 season opener against Oakland and missed the next two games.
Spanos said Tomlinson “was very, very gracious and very respectful” during their meeting. “He had his typical smile. He was just as good as could be, as respectful as could be. Just really, like he is, first class.”