NFL: Legendary LaDainian Tomlinson Will Be Remembered for Falling Short
For all the regular season prowess of future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson, his legacy as a player will be defined by what he didn't accomplish in the postseason.
This isn't to dismiss a wonderful career.
In addition to becoming one of the best running backs ever on the field, the five-time Pro Bowler was more than visible off of it.
He did—and continues to do—tons of charity work and has become a legend in the San Diego community for his philanthropic efforts alone.
It's clear that Tomlinson did so much on the field as well. A floundering Chargers franchise when he was drafted fifth overall in the 2001 NFL Draft, Tomlinson sparked a change in organizational culture.
The Chargers suffered a six-year Super Bowl XXIX hangover capped off by a one-win 2000 season.
Beginning in LT's fourth season, the Chargers won five of six AFC West championships and fielded consistently competitive squads year in and year out.
The one thing he couldn't deliver, though, was a Super Bowl.
Tomlinson never made it to the biggest stage in sports. Call it lack of durability. Call it being overworked. Blame it on injuries. Blame it on lack of a true "killer instinct" or leadership.
As the disclaimer always goes: I will not personally psychoanalyze a player, because it's irresponsible.
These are simply explanations that have been speculated by the media to make sense of a truly bizarre trend in Tomlinson's postseason play.
Whatever the explanation, Tomlinson managed just under 3.6 yards per carry in his 10-game playoff career. For such an incredible all-around back, the likes of which the game may never see again, these numbers are abysmal.
The best shot at a Super Bowl ring for LT came during the 2006 campaign. Tomlinson, the NFL MVP, led the league in rushing with 1,815 yards and set many NFL records including 28 rushing touchdowns and 31 total TDs.
Armed with home field advantage throughout the playoffs as the AFC's No. 1 seed, the Chargers looked the part of a Super Bowl contender.
Tomlinson had by far the most effective game of his postseason career in the divisional round, rushing for 125 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns.
Despite the phenomenal play by Tomlinson, the Chargers lost the divisional round to the New England Patriots, 24-21.
At age 27, that was unfortunately the last time Tomlinson was able to be his true, dynamic self.
The next season, the Chargers had an opportunity to exact revenge on the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
While Chargers QB Philip Rivers played through a torn ACL, Tomlinson aggravated a mysterious injury.
The specifics of the injury were never determined, but LT sat alone on the bench with his helmet and visor on for most of the game.
He finished the contest with two carries for five yards, as the Chargers lost 21-12.
According to the recap of the game prior, Tomlinson left in the second quarter with a bruised left knee.
It's unclear how Tomlinson hurt himself so much against the Patriots to the point where he couldn't play in the biggest game of his life.
After a bitter departure from San Diego, Tomlinson signed with the New York Jets and enjoyed a brief renaissance.
LT split time with Shone Greene but posted 4.2 yards per carry: his best since last winning the rushing title in 2007.
In Tomlinson's first season with the Jets, the team reached the AFC Championship game, only to fall short.
He had 16 carries for 82 yards and two touchdowns on the road against the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card Round, and caught a one-yard TD against the Patriots in the next game.
However, that was the extent of LT's significant contributions.
Unlike in basketball where an individual player's performance is easier to assess, the playoffs may have been different in the sense that defenses simply keyed more on LT.
Maybe the line didn't block as well. Maybe the passing game wasn't as effective on all those days.
It's a lot of mixed finger pointing, and his biggest supporters will have plenty of rationalizations to explain why Tomlinson was mostly ineffective when it mattered most.
What's interesting in reflecting on Tomlinson's career is that not only was Tomlinson unable to get himself to a Super Bowl. None of the coaches he had have ever been able to win the big game.
The jury is still out on Ryan, but the former two coaches' legacies will be defined more for their postseason failures than their regular season accolades.
To cite a similar case for a player: this is how Dan Marino's legacy continues to be defined, as amazing and talented as he was.
In the context of a comparable level of greatness, expect Tomlinson's legacy to suffer the same fate.
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