LaDainian Tomlinson: An Epic and Misunderstood Hall of Fame Career

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 20, 2015

** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, SEPT. 12-13 ** FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2009, file photo, San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson looks on from the sidelines during a preseason NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. If Tomlinson is at the record-setting form of 2006, he could carry the San Diego Chargers to their first NFL championship. If he struggles, the Chargers could fall very short of high expectations surrounding them. (AP Photo/John Amis, File)
Associated Press

LaDainian Tomlinson, whose number the San Diego Chargers will retire Sunday, is the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history. Only two players—Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith—have scored more touchdowns, and Tomlinson remains the only player in professional football history to find the end zone more than 30 times in a single season. 

The former Chargers and New York Jets running back was a two-time rushing leader, a three-time first-team All-Pro, a five-time Pro Bowler and the league's MVP in 2006. He's a member of the NFL's 2000s All-Decade Team and is likely to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2017. 

And yet when Tomlinson looks back on his career, he can't help but see a void. 

"I kind of view it as close but no cigar," Tomlinson told Bleacher Report.

"And there's a lot of different reasons for that," he added. "I certainly think during my tenure we probably had the best team two or three of those seasons. It's just unfortunate for us that injuries happened to key players, bad mistakes were made at the end of games, bad management decisions [were made] at certain times. And so I would just say we had great teams; obviously I was the catalyst on those teams, and the captain. But it was close but no cigar."

Even in the ultimate team sport, that explanation exemplifies how much of a team player Tomlinson was. When asked to reflect on his career, his first thought was that during his nine years with the Bolts and two years with the Jets, he never won or even participated in a Super Bowl.

"That was one thing that he always strove for," his mother, Loreane, told B/R, "so I think it was hard on him. I think it's still something that he thinks about."

It's a burden Tomlinson may carry for the remainder of his life, and it's something we may well attach permanently to his legacy. And to understand why that's happening, you have to realize just how dominant he was. 

One of a kind

It took a second, more direct question to get a feel for how Tomlinson looks back on his career independent of team results. And it turns out what he's most proud of individually is also what makes him particularly special.

"The rapid pace that I scored touchdowns," said Tomlinson when asked what gives him the most pride. "Because the game is about scoring; you have to score to win. And I always prided myself on getting in the end zone any way I could—catching it, running it, even if I had to throw it."

Tomlinson, who scored 100 touchdowns faster than any player in NFL history, carried a Chargers team that won a franchise-record 14 games by scoring a record 31 times in 2006 (nobody else has scored more than 28).

Most touchdowns in a single season, NFL history
1. LaDainian Tomlinson200631
2. Shaun Alexander200528
3. Priest Holmes200327
4. Marshall Faulk200026
5. Emmitt Smith199525
Pro Football Reference

And let's not forget that he also threw seven touchdown passes, which ranks second to only Walter Payton among modern NFL backs. In fact, he completed eight of his 12 career passes for 143 yards, which would make him the highest-rated passer in NFL history if he qualified

That's something else Tomlinson was: versatile. It's an overused word. Probably a cliche, often a crutch. But when pertaining to Tomlinson, it couldn't be more apt. 

"What LaDainian was able to do in the passing game on a consistent basis is really one of the things that doesn't get enough attention," said Tomlinson's former Chargers teammate and longtime pal, Lorenzo Neal, noting that Tomlinson's ability to contribute significantly as both a receiver and a runner is what separates him from other great backs he blocked for (Eddie George, Corey Dillon, Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott, to name a few).

Most receptions among halfbacks (Super Bowl era)
1. Marshall Faulk12767
2. LaDainain Tomlinson11624
3. Marcus Allen16587
4. Tiki Barber10586
5. Roger Craig11566
Pro Football Reference

"On 3rd-and-5, you could throw him a screen, you could throw him an angle route, a corner route," added Neal, who served as Tomlinson's fullback between 2003 and 2007. "He could run any route that could take over a game because he was not just a chain-mover, but he was a game-changer at the running back position."

Hall of Fame defensive lineman Warren Sapp, whose Oakland Raiders were Tomlinson's AFC West whipping boys during the final four years of Sapp's career, called Tomlinson "one of the greatest running backs that ever touched the football." 

Which might explain why he touched it so often. 

Tomlinson finished his career with 624 catches, which ranks second to only Marshall Faulk among halfbacks, and he also ranks in the top 10 in that field with 4,772 receiving yards. He's tied for most touches in a single game with 48, and no player this century has touched the ball more often in an 11-year span than he did during his career. 

In a sense, that enabled Tomlinson to transcend the decaying running back position. 

Held to a quarterback-type standard?

Tomlinson was so good that, despite not playing a premium position, he was "the guy." You heard "Peyton Manning and the Colts," you heard "Tom Brady and the Patriots" and, with all due respect to Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, you heard "LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers."

NFL all-time yardage leaders
PlayerYardsSuper Bowls
1. Jerry Rice23,5403
2. Emmitt Smith21,5793
3. Walter Payton21,2641
4. Marshall Faulk19,1541
5. LaDainian Tomlinson18,4560
6. Barry Sanders18,1900
7. Marcus Allen17,6541
Pro Football Reference

"If you had the assignment of No. 21, you didn't sleep very well that week," said Sapp. "And after the game, you understood why."

In that respect, it's fair to wonder if Tomlinson is now somewhat of a victim of his own success. 

"When you talk about running backs, L.T. and Barry Sanders are the two guys that people talk about not winning the big one," said Neal, who now works as a sports radio host and television analyst in the Bay Area. "That goes to show you what kind of weight those guys had on their shoulders. L.T. is one of the few running backs that is being judged by Super Bowls like a quarterback."

If indeed we're judging Tomlinson for a lack of team success the way we do Dan Marino and Fran Tarkenton, it might actually be an honor. And while he isn't totally convinced that's happening to him, he understands why some onlookers might hold it against him. 

"Because I was the captain and the face of the franchise, people do look at me as more of a quarterback in terms of not winning a championship," admitted the 36-year-old. "And hey, that's the way it is. I wish I would have won one...or two."

Still, he rightly points out that in an era in which teams pass about 60 percent of the time, even a superstar back has his limitations. 

"There's so much out of a running back's control," he explained. "We don't have the ball every play. Sometimes there's nothing we can do. We're blocking or we're running a route and there's nothing we can do. And even when we are getting the ball, we still need everybody else to be involved and everybody else to help make that run work. Whereas with quarterbacks, that ball is in their hand. There's a cliche in football that when that ball is in your hands you have the life of everybody else on this team in your hands, and it's true."

Meanwhile, Sapp is adamant that a lack of championships should have no impact on Tomlinson's legacy. 

"I don't remember running backs being judged for winning championships," he exclaimed. "Because you're not going to tell me Barry Sanders is not one of the greatest running backs of all time because he didn't win a championship, are you? Let's give the quarterbacks that, because they get way too much glory and way too much blame. But let's not judge our running backs on championship rings. That's just silly."

Former foe Warren Sapp has nothing but respect for Tomlinson.
Former foe Warren Sapp has nothing but respect for Tomlinson.Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

But shouldn't rings at least factor in to some degree? Would Sapp have become only the 70th first-ballot Hall of Famer in pro football history (not including the charter class) had he not won Super Bowl XXXVII with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

"Let's just say I'm happy we don't have to have that conversation," he said. 

Why didn't he win?

It's true, Tomlinson never led the Chargers to a Super Bowl. But this isn't boxing or golf, and it's important to consider how short a running back's shelf life is.

He played nine seasons in San Diego, missing only three of a possible 144 regular-season games. During that stretch, the Chargers posted an 84-60 record, ranking sixth in football, and Tomlinson led them to the playoffs five times in a six-year span in his prime. 

Best records in NFL between 2004 and 2009
RecordPlayoff winsSuper Bowls
1. Indianapolis Colts77-1971
2. New England Patriots73-2381
3. San Diego Chargers67-2930
4. Pittsburgh Steelers65-3182
Pro Football Reference

Unfortunately, he and his team consistently fell short in January. And it didn't help that major injuries hit Tomlinson in back-to-back postseasons. 

In 2007—the only year his Chargers made an AFC Championship Game—he suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee in the second half of San Diego's divisional-round victory over the Colts. As a result, he was able to play only four early snaps the following week in a loss to the Patriots, which unfairly drew a barrage of criticism. 

"A lot of people came down hard on me because I couldn't play six days later on a sprained MCL," said Tomlinson, defending himself nearly a decade later. "No running back can do that! But people came down hard on me. So I understand that it was a different standard with me because I was the face of the franchise. But a lot of that stuff is out of my control. So when they say you never won a championship, you're right. That's a fair point. But at the same time, there's a lot more to it."

An injured Tomlinson was criticized heavily for watching from the sideline with his helmet on during a playoff loss to New England.
An injured Tomlinson was criticized heavily for watching from the sideline with his helmet on during a playoff loss to New England.Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

There was also a lot more to it in 2008, when Tomlinson once again suffered a poorly timed injury by partially tearing his groin in the regular-season finale. He was able to rush for 25 yards on five carries in the Wild Card Game against Indianapolis before aggravating the injury and—although the Chargers held on and won—he wasn't able to suit up the following week in a divisional-round loss to the Steelers

It wasn't just injuries. Before those two snake-bitten Januaries, the Chargers began to establish a reputation as January busts by going one-and-done in the 2006 playoffs, despite the fact they posted the league's best record during the regular season. 

In that case, Tomlinson was healthy for the team's divisional-round loss to the Patriots, but it's hard to pin the loss on him considering his production. In fact, he had 143 yards from scrimmage on 16 first-half touches, and San Diego led 14-10 at halftime. But rather strangely, he touched the ball only 10 times in the second half as New England came back to win, 24-21. 

To this day, Neal wonders what could have been had San Diego head coach Marty Schottenheimer not gone away from Tomlinson down the stretch in that game. The way he sees it, had the coaching staff kept riding its MVP running back, we'd be talking about Peyton Manning's Super Bowl-less resume instead of Tomlinson's. That's because he thinks the Chargers would have beaten eventual Super Bowl champion Indy the next week. 

"LaDainian was absolutely dominating that game, and we had already beaten Indy that year," said Neal. "That's a game where the coaches should have rode LaDainian. He never came out publicly and said anything, but I know LaDainian better than a lot of people and I know he was ready for that. And that was a year that we would have won the Super Bowl and Peyton Manning probably wouldn't have."

Neal and Tomlinson were backfield mates for most of LaDainian's prime.
Neal and Tomlinson were backfield mates for most of LaDainian's prime.Denis Poroy/Associated Press/Associated Press

None of this is to say Tomlinson wasn't a culprit in San Diego's playoff failures. He averaged only 3.1 yards per carry on 26 attempts in a 2004 upset loss to the Jets in the Wild Card Game and had only 24 yards on 12 attempts in another first-round loss to the Jets in 2009. 

When he couldn't beat 'em, he joined 'em, but Tomlinson failed to rush for more than 82 yards in three playoff games with Gang Green in 2010. In the end, despite the injuries and questionable coaching calls, he won half of the 10 playoff games he participated in. But he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry and scored only seven combined touchdowns. 

Lowest YPAs among RBs with 100 playoff attempts since 2000
PlayerPlayoff rushesYards per attempt
Jerome Bettis1133.16
Jamal Lewis1303.28
Shaun Alexander1693.34
LaDainian Tomlinson1313.57
Willis McGahee1113.68
Pro Football Reference

It wasn't enough, and he knows it.

"A lot of things have to go right," said Tomlinson. "And I understand that it didn't go right." 

Beyond that, there were macro factors at play. For instance, despite the fact they won 14 games, the Chargers abruptly fired Schottenheimer after Tomlinson's MVP season in 2006. His replacement, Norv Turner, took the offense in a direction that many of the players were displeased with. 

DENIS POROY/Associated Press

"Just being honest, since Marty left, (with) the focus of running the football the way it was, every single year, it has dropped," Tomlinson said when looking back on the coaching change at his goodbye press conference three years later, per the San Diego Union-Tribune. "For me, I look at the numbers. Did I get old the year after I won the MVP? I don’t think so. What about a couple years after? I certainly don’t think so."

Today, he still wonders what might have been had Schottenheimer kept his job.

"I think it's natural to wonder," he said. "Because so much is involved in winning and building a team, so that when you're able to have a team that you can win with and make it to the playoffs every single year, then you try to keep that together. Because there's a synergy there, there's a chemistry. All of that stuff is real in football. I think the change sent the organization in a different way, and the energy started to change. Clearly from the beginning you could see that we just weren't getting the same results."

On paper, the transition didn't cost Tomlinson a tremendous amount of work, but his carries did drop moderately in each of Turner's first three seasons. Turner also seemed to pay less attention to his star running back in the red zone. 

Tomlinson runs as a percentage of Chargers red-zone plays
YearCoachRate (%)
Pro Football Reference

"Marty Schottenheimer should have never been fired," said Neal. "He took the team to 14-2 and you fire him? Schottenheimer knew the heartbeat of a team that was built on being physical. And you had a guy in LaDainian controlling it. And then Norv being the coach that he is—an offensive guy who is a passing guru—he decided to make that transition to a predominant passing team. And it really stifled the Chargers."

Finally, Tomlinson picked a bad time and place to become the leader of a very good team that sometimes lacked elite play at the quarterback position. Again, this is a quarterback-driven era, and the Chargers constantly found themselves going toe-to-toe in big moments with Manning's Colts, Brady's Patriots and Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers. 

During Tomlinson's short prime (they're all short in the land of running backs), the AFC was stacked. That's not his fault, nor were his injuries or the questionable decisions made by his bosses. But he couldn't overcome that, and his legacy will bear it.

Don't forget about LaDainian Tomlinson

As time takes its toll on our ability to recollect his many seemingly unforgettable regular-season feats, Tomlinson is at risk of fading at least marginally from our memories. Those who were lucky enough to watch him in his prime might know better, but Super Bowl and playoff moments are the key artifacts of consciousness that football fans of future generations will seek. 

Accounts of those events will hardly ever include Tomlinson, but solace can be found in the fact Super Bowl tales also continue to and always will omit offensive greats such as Sanders, Eric Dickerson, O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell, Dan Fouts and Warren Moon. 

It's also worth considering that Tomlinson won't beg for your buzz. He spent the majority of his career in the country's No. 28-ranked media market, which was fitting for a man who always lacked the bravado often associated with football stardom. 

"He's not the type that desires attention," said Loreane of her son, who famously declined an opportunity to appear on the cover of Madden 08. "As far as recognition, I guess it's just a way of life for us to allow someone else to give you your accolades."

Even now, while he remains in the public eye as an analyst at NFL Network, Tomlinson lives a modest life. Outside of running some charitable foundations, a San Diego-based pet resort and a preparatory academy for student-athletes who aspire to play at a collegiate level, he spends five days per week as a proud soccer dad at home in Westlake, Texas, making breakfast for his five-year-old son and four-year-old daughter.

Tomlinson keeps busy but isn't flashy.
Tomlinson keeps busy but isn't flashy.Peter Larsen/Getty Images

When he commutes to Los Angeles to appear on NFL Network on Sundays and Mondays, he isn't in your face. He doesn't sound convinced that his long-term future is in media. He'll never be a Michael Irvin or a Deion Sanders, which might further suppress his Q Score. 

"My persona being more humble, I'm not going to be brash or try to stand out among the crowd," said Tomlinson. "I'm the type of guy who will just fit right into a crowd, and that's the way I've always been. So I think that has a lot to do with why there's not a lot of hype around me."

For those concerned with Tomlinson's profile, it's a less-than-ideal combination. No memorable performances in monumental games mixed with a quiet demeanor. Out of sight, out of mind. It's the type of formula that can lead national NFL correspondents to suggest that the fifth-most prolific rusher in NFL history might not even be Hall of Fame-worthy. 

And it's a big reason Neal thinks his former teammate is already tragically underrated. 

"No question," he said when asked if that's the case, noting that legends such as Smith and Sanders benefited greatly from playing in larger, more geographically beneficial markets. "Just look at the numbers. I think when you look at that along with what he did with sometimes not having a great offensive line and not having a strong supporting cast behind him his first couple years in the league, no question."

Happy ending anyway

One day, we may view Tomlinson's days in Jets green the same way we look at Joe Montana in the Chiefs red, gold and white or Emmitt Smith in Cardinals red, white and black. It doesn't feel right, because Tomlinson's name is synonymous with Chargers football. 

But despite the fact he didn't get any closer to the championship he was chasing in New York, he doesn't regret spending the final two years of his career there. 

He thought he still had something left when the Chargers released him following the 2009 season, and he was able to prove it by racking up 1,282 yards from scrimmage while averaging a solid 4.2 yards per carry as the lead back for the Jets in 2010. 

"I didn't want to go out like that in San Diego, being injured those last couple years and not performing the way I wanted to perform," recalled Tomlinson. "People were thinking I was done at that time, so I had a lot to prove, not only to everybody else but to myself. I knew what I still could do so let's prove that your body can hold up even at 30 years old. It re-energized me, because I was so determined to prove what I could still do."

Tomlinson doesn't regret finishing his career in New York, where he felt he had something to prove.
Tomlinson doesn't regret finishing his career in New York, where he felt he had something to prove.Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Of course, Tomlinson didn't choose to leave San Diego in the first place. But as he noted, his career trajectory had been thrown off course several years earlier, he was fighting injuries along with Mother Nature, and he had a contentious relationship with then-general manager A.J. Smith. So the timing might have been right, and he had what he calls "a great two years" in New York. 

Tomlinson once said he'd have a hard time retiring as a Charger so long as Smith was still running the front office. He eventually came to his senses and signed a ceremonial contract in order to retire with the team in 2012, just months before Smith and Turner were fired anyway. Now, it's all water under the Coronado Bridge.

"My relationship with the Spanos family never wavered," he said. "It's always been strong. At the time, I obviously didn't agree with some of the decisions. But knowing Dean, he lets the people that he put in place run the team and make decisions, for the most part. It's a new regime there and I've gotten to know both Tom [Telesco] and Mike [McCoy]. They're certainly great guys."

He also noted that the tough breakup and those sour memories don't take away from how he feels about the guys he played with and the team's accomplishments.

"Team-wise, we experienced some great success during that time," he said. "We dominated our division time and time again and we dominated our biggest rival, the Oakland Raiders, for about six or seven years straight. So we accomplished some wonderful things. We were relevant, and I'm really proud of that."

On Sunday, some of the those teammates will have a chance to honor their longtime leader as Tomlinson's number is retired for the third time in his 36 years: University High School in Waco, Texas; Texas Christian University; and now Qualcomm Stadium. 

"The San Diego Chargers understand now after he's gone," said Neal, who will speak Sunday, "they got to see something that doesn't come around often."

No. 21 will never be worn again in San Diego.
No. 21 will never be worn again in San Diego.Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

And as wounds heal, even longtime rivals such as poor Sapp—who lost each of the seven games he played against Tomlinson's Chargers—can only shake their heads and pay respect to No. 21. 

"We had a nightmare with him," said Sapp. "Seven-man front with this Hulk coming at us? L.T. is a monster. Every down. The only other backs I played with who I'd categorize him with are Barry [Sanders] and Marshall [Faulk]. Because he was all three downs. Any time he touched it, he could be gone."

Sapp, of course, finished his career watching Tomlinson in awe from the wrong sideline, while running back Jamaal Charles of the division-rival Chiefs—who will be in San Diego for the occasion this weekend—spent the first two years of his superstar career watching Tomlinson do his thing.

"I try to [emulate] him, but it's definitely not easy to do the things he does," said Charles. "He inspired me with the way he played while I was in college. I tried to do everything that reminds me of LaDainian Tomlinson. But being in the same division and playing him twice per year is something I didn't want to do."

For an athlete, not a lot tops possessing that ability to instill a combination of fear and admiration in your opponents, and it's apparent Tomlinson has been doing that his entire life as a football player. 

"It's really a culmination of my entire life, in terms of the big picture," said Tomlinson of the honor he'll receive Sunday. "I'm talking about even playing Texas high school football, going to TCU and then starting my career. Because I wasn't highly recruited, I was like this sleeper guy. No one really knew about me, and there were always questions about my abilities. And so now to look back and have my number retired at every single level that I've played—high school, college and now the NFL—it is truly amazing. It is mind-boggling to even think about where I am at this point and what I've done on the football field."

Next stop, Canton

Exactly seven weeks after Tomlinson was named NFL MVP in 2007, a car accident took the lives of his father and half-brother, a tragedy that the born-and-bred Texan unsurprisingly says had a tremendous impact on him. 

At the time, Tomlinson was troubled by a New York Times article—published only a few weeks before the accident—which contained what Tomlinson felt was an unfair depiction of his relationship with his father. He felt the highly publicized article portrayed him as a big star who was neglecting his impoverished dad, when in reality there was a lot more to the story. 

"It really hurt me for a little while that that was out there like that," he said. "Because only my closest family and friends knew the full story." 

Tomlinson said he invited his father—who at times had struggled with drugsto live with him in San Diego, but that Oliver Tomlinson wouldn't leave his mother's home. Like many fathers, Oliver was stubborn, he notes, but the truth is LaDainian dedicated a large portion of his career to fulfilling his dad's dream. 

"My father wanted to go to a Super Bowl, and I figured if I made it he would really be smiling down on me," said Tomlinson. "He would not be there, but I knew that he would be with me in spirit."

It's a shame he wasn't able to accomplish that, but for those—like Tomlinsonwho believe lost loved ones are watching over us, he will undoubtedly make his father proud when he's honored Sunday in San Diego. 

And that won't be Oliver's last chance to smile down on his son, because Tomlinson is widely expected to be a shoo-in when he becomes eligible for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017. And a Hall of Fame induction—particularly on the first ballot—is actually a substantially more extraordinary accomplishment than a Super Bowl victory. 

"You can't help but to think about it," Tomlinson said. "Like, 'Man, is that really gonna happen? What is that feeling gonna be like?' Because that's the ultimate. There is no higher pinnacle."

In Canton, Tomlinson might get his cigar after all. 

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.