New York Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson (LT) went about his business as usual this season. The soft-spoken future Hall of Famer might be one of the more boring superstars of the modern era. You might call it being a class act, I call it being boring.
However, LT always put to rest any criticism by letting his play do the talking. That is, until two seasons ago, when his production began to decline sharply, seeing his yards per carry average slip to the lowest since his rookie season when his fresh legs carried all of the burden for a dismal 5-11 San Diego Chargers team.
The 2009 season was the worst of his career. He sought redemption by signing with the Jets, and he got it. He quietly toiled away, let nagging injuries heal from previous years and trained harder than ever. He succeeded, having a renaissance season in 2010 and showing he still had something left in the tank. For once, too, Tomlinson was not fading in the postseason, as he contributed two touchdowns against the Colts in the wild card round and a receiving touchdown against the heavily-favored Patriots at Foxborough.
However, LT once again hit a wall in the AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Nine carries, 16 yards. Ouch.
Few sports fans I know have been more critical of Tomlinson than I have over his entire career. When you look at the circumstances, though, perhaps he is not completely to blame.
Even Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan’s defensive genius had no control over a Pittsburgh rush defense that was one of the best in recent memory, giving up an astonishingly low 62.8 yards per game, easily the best in the league. This stifled the Jets’ running attack, and the young Mark Sanchez, say what you will about him, actually played the best game of any quarterback who played on Sunday against arguably the toughest opponent when the offense was one-dimensional. Clearly, though, this did not bode well for Tomlinson and his legacy.
In San Diego, he played on up-and-coming teams with little experience. Then, when his teams had enough talent to win, his head coaches were Marty Schottenheimer, famous for shriveling into a conservative shell in the playoffs, playing “Marty Ball,” and Norv Turner. Both of these coaches are notorious for not being able to win the big game.
This year,the circumstances were different. The colorful personality of Ryan has revamped a heartbroken fan base and revitalized the organization, instilling a culture of winning, as evidenced by two AFC championship game appearances in his first two seasons at the helm.
Whether Ryan becomes notorious for not quite making it over the hump remains to be seen. Unfortunately, though, this may have been Tomlinson’s final shot to get over that hump to attain the ultimate prize of the NFL. The lockout may end up costing him his career, and lack of a Super Bowl ring is what will likely define LaDainian Tomlinson. That is, unless he can quietly prove us all wrong … again.