February 22, 2010 was a sad day in Chargers history. It was the day when the team officially released star running back LaDainian Tomlinson. For nine seasons, Tomlinson rushed out of the Chargers backfield and past some of the greatest running backs in NFL History.
LT's departure was hard to swallow for many fans who had watched Tomlinson aid in the Chargers transformation from a 1-15 disaster to a perennial playoff contender. Gone are the spirited chants of "LT, LT, LT," from the masses assembled on Sundays at Qualcomm Stadium. The loss of Tomlinson was sure to be felt on the field, in the locker room and in the community.
Even prior to the end of the LT era, there was a growing sense that the Chargers were becoming Philip Rivers' team. Rivers heroically played every snap of the 2007 AFC Championship Game against New England despite having surgery on both knees earlier that week. Tomlinson spent the majority of the game sulking on the sidelines with a minor knee injury. While the Chargers lost that game 21-12, Rivers won over his teammates and the fans with his gritty determination.
Rivers' passing attempts have increased each year since then, as the Chargers have become a pass-first offense. LT was let go due to money, age, a perceived deterioration of skills and a souring of the relationship with the Chargers' upper management.
It took a while for fans to come up with a new acronym to shout from the stands, but 10 games into the first season without LT, Philip Rivers has inspired chants of "MVP." Rivers is having his finest season in what is shaping up to be a dazzling career.
With six games still on the schedule, Rivers has already surpassed the number of yards and touchdowns he had during the entire 2007 season. His 3,177 passing yards and 23 touchdowns rank first in the NFL and his 105 quarterback rating is behind only Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
Rivers is the unquestioned leader of a resurgent Chargers team that once again is in the midst of overcoming a slow start en route to an improbable playoff run. Throughout the Chargers' disappointing 2-5 start, Rivers made no excuses for the team's poor play, and remained consistently optimistic that this group had the leadership to turn things around.
Despite the holdout of number-one wide receiver Vincent Jackson, injuries to starters Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee, and the recent absence of Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, Rivers keeps the Chargers offense marching down the field at a furious pace. Injuries have contributed to Rivers completing passes to 14 different receivers this season. The revolving door at wide receiver has done nothing to derail Rivers' MVP efforts.
Rivers' progression has provided Chargers fans with a new idol to worship. Tomlinson's contributions to the Chargers organization and the city of San Diego will never be forgotten, but Philip Rivers' emergence as an elite quarterback has sufficiently filled the void created by Tomlinson's release.