When a running back who is on the doorstep of 30 has what could be termed the worst season of his NFL career, the vultures are going to circle.
But LaDainian Tomlinson is just treating those vultures like extra defenders in the box.
“He’s healthy and working hard,” Chargers general manager A.J. Smith says. “He’s aware of all the criticism. He has a little extra chip, a little extra motivation.”
Last season Tomlinson, probably the greatest running back of an era, had career lows in carries and yards, and his lowest rushing average since his rookie year. Since then, Tomlinson turned 30 and his team considered parting ways with him. San Diego decided to keep him only after he agreed to a restructured contract.
So you are not alone in wondering if The Great L.T. still is The Great L.T., or if in fact he has become The Pretty Good L.T.
What do you say, A.J. Smith?
“He looks the same to me. Physically he’s the same guy. But this is a year-to-year business.”
And you, Mr. Pro Personnel Director who shall remain anonymous?
“This guy is not a declining player, I’m telling you. It’s obvious he’s been hurt.”
So we have to cut him some slack. But the bigger issue may not be whether Tomlinson can run as effectively as he once did, but whether he can stay healthy. He also had a knee sprain that kept him out of the AFC championship game the season before last.
Perhaps all those hits have started to take a toll. If a running back can’t stay on the field, he isn’t very valuable to his team.
Durability always has been a strong suit for L.T. But as they age, many players find they can’t avoid injuries the way they did when they were younger.
Even if Tomlinson doesn’t have quite the explosiveness he had a few years ago, he still has enough athleticism and know-how to be a very good back. While it’s way too early to conclude that he has lost the speed and quickness that made him great, it would be normal if Tomlinson’s skills have eroded slightly.
NFL players typically get a little slower every year they play in the league.
“You can still be an outstanding back and not have the 40 time, the burst you had when you were 25,” Smith said. “I’ve seen a lot of older guys be productive. He’s been labeled a guy who is on the verge of being old, having nothing left. I can’t jump in on that conversation. I’m aware of the statistics, but some people defy that. You’ll only know that at the end of their careers.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“With the way the game has changed with sub backs and different packages, it allows a guy to carry less of a load, which helps with longevity,” the personnel director said. “Just because a guy is 30 doesn’t necessarily mean he’s done anymore.”
This guy clearly is not done. But he’s closer to the end than the beginning.
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