While there will be plenty of time to look into what caused LaDainian Tomlinson's release and who’s to blame (including such nonspecific options as father time and no-one) for now time must be made to honor what he has done for the San Diego sports community.
For all of the flak the San Diego Chargers get as a perennial contender that has yet to make it to the Super Bowl, one needn’t look far into the past to have an appreciation for even the current ultimately disappointing degree of success.
When LaDainian Tomlinson was drafted, San Diego held the number one overall pick in the 2001 draft. In other words, they were the NFL’s worst team the year before, with a 1-15 record. The team ultimately traded that first overall selection (under the general consensus that it would be used on Michael Vick) to move down four slots and draft TCU’s star running back.
He showed he was worth the move instantly, putting up 1,236 rushing yards while catching 59 balls for 367 yards (or over 1,600 combined yards) in his rookie season. The next year San Diego’s climb to respectability took another step with Tomlinson notching over 2,000 combined yards, including the second highest rushing total of his career with 1,683 yards, as the team improved over its 2000 total by four wins.
Tomlinson quickly became the face of the San Diego Chargers franchise, something it desperately needed following a youth movement that saw veteran mainstays like Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison cut.
The team remained unsettled at several positions, most notably quarterback, which kept the team mired in mediocrity until 2004 when Marty Schottenheimer jumped the team all the way to a 12-4 record in his second year as San Diego’s head coach.
Just as Dan Fouts and Don Coryell were tied together in their time, LaDainian Tomlinson’s robust 5'11", 220 pound frame became the symbol for the Schottenheimer era in San Diego. His capacity for a large workload fit in perfectly with the run-heavy “martyball” style of offense.
In his first six years in the league, Tomlinson received a whopping 2,109 touches, including 1,711 carries. He not only headlined San Diego’s offense; in many ways he was San Diego’s only offense.
The 2003 season represented one of the two the penultimate LaDainian Tomlinson seasons. His 1,645 yards would only stand as his third best rushing total, but he paired that with his highest yards per carry average (5.3) and his best receiving year (100 receptions for 725 yards). The 2,370 combined yards will stand as one of the NFL’s best all-around seasons by any player.
The 2006 season was the grand finale for that incarnation of the San Diego Chargers, as well as LaDainian Tomlinson's other defining season. Tomlinson ran up his second best combined-yardage total (2,323) behind his best career rushing total (1,815 yards) and broke Seattle Seahawks-great Shaun Alexander’s single season touchdown record with 31 (28 on the ground, three by reception; he threw another two that do not count toward the record).
He earned his lone MVP award that year while leading the Chargers to a 14-2 record. Despite the best playoff game of his career (his 123 yards that day comprise 38 percent of his career playoff rushing yardage), the team failed to advance.
The move triggered an end to the head coach that brought "martyball" to San Diego, and ushered in the first inklings of a changing of the guard in offensive leadership with the hiring of Norv Turner.
In Turner’s first year Tomlinson still put up very good numbers: 1,474 yards rushing and 475 receiving. The 341 fewer rushing yards comprised the single greatest dip at that point in his career.
This was the last time Tomlinson’s totals were found among the ranks of the elite running backs. Seven consecutive years of over 350 touches per season started to wear on his body, while a change in offensive style and personnel cut into the openings for that body to run through.
Time and fate may have taken away his one-time aspirations to pursue Emmitt Smith’s 18,335 career yards. However, LT is already eighth on the all-time rushing list at 12,490, and therefore leapfrogged Dan Fouts (ninth in career passing yards) as the most accomplished Charger (though any more climbing done on that list will be in a different uniform).
While he may find success with a different team and a different role in the years to come, when LaDainian Tomlinson retires, his hall of fame career will be remembered as probably the greatest in San Diego Chargers history. The time was right on both sides for Tomlinson to leave, but the legacy of nine years in blue and gold remains.