(LaDainian Tomlinson photos courtesy San Diego Chargers)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
LaDainian Tomlinson has the numbers and the resume to make his final football stop in Canton, Ohio, the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But did he do enough to join those few who get there on the first ballot?
That seems to be the only debate, if debate there may be, about the three-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowl running back who was an NFL sensation the first eight of his 11 NFL seasons.
Before injuries and a backbreaking workload seemed to wear him out, Tomlinson rushed for over 1,200 yards seven consecutive years and for over 1,100 in eight straight, while also a threat in both ends of the passing game. In addition to all he did running with and catching the ball for the San Diego Chargers, Tomlinson also completed eight of 12 passes for 143 yards and seven, count them SEVEN, touchdowns.
Only the great Frank Gifford and Walter Payton threw the halfback option for more touchdowns than Tomlinson. Gifford had 14, Payton eight.
When he retired, Tomlinson was fifth in career rushing with 13,684 yards, seventh in all-purpose yardage with 18,456, second in rushing touchdowns with 145 and third in total touchdowns with 162. He was the NFL’s MVP in 2006, a 2000s all-decade selection, the fastest ever to rush for 100 touchdowns (doing it in 89 games to surpass Jim Brown and Emmitt Smith, who needed 93 to reach 100) and the first running back in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes, a feat he accomplished in 2003.
And that wasn’t even his greatest season.
That season came in 2006, when Tomlinson led the NFL in rushing with 1,815 yards and rushing touchdowns with a record 28 (he would do the same in 2007 with 1,474 yards and 15 TDs). That kind of production for nearly a decade led All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis to say upon the announcement of Tomlinson’s retirement, “It was almost impossible to defend him because he had hands like a receiver, he had feet like a ballet dancer and had a heart like a lion.
“Anytime that you have all of those things, you just never know what you are going to get. I think what made him the hardest thing to deal with was that he always kept a calm demeanor. You never could rattle him. He always stayed true to himself.”
The only hole in Tomlinson’s resume is one many great athletes have been burdened with: He never played on a championship team. Moreover, he was unfairly labeled in 2007 as refusing to play against the New England Patriots with a sprained MCL in the same game where quarterback Philip Rivers limped around with a torn ACL that had to be surgically repaired.
The sad image of Tomlinson sitting on the bench after only two carries with his darkened helmet visor covering his face as his team went down to defeat seemed to haunt him, people forgetting perhaps that just a year earlier he’d rushed for 123 yards, caught two passes for 64 more and scored twice against the Patriots in a bitter AFC divisional game playoff loss.
Yet those who played with him carry no such doubts about LaDainian Tomlinson’s willingness to do whatever it took for his team to succeed.
“Nobody in the NFL carries the ball now the way L.T. did, nor carries the responsibility of the team on his shoulders the way this guy did,’’ his former Charger teammate Drew Brees says. “He is one of the few running backs in history that could literally take over a game, despite what might have been happening around him. L.T. gave every ounce of his talent and heart into this game.’’
Though the Chargers were never able to get over the hump during his nine years in San Diego (before finishing his career with the Jets for two seasons), there is no arguing that Tomlinson was anything less than the most productive back of his time. In the decade of the 2000s, he rushed for 12,490 yards and 138 touchdowns. The latter was a record for any decade in the history of the professional game, and that yardage was 1,897 more than his next closest competitor that decade, 2017 Hall-of-Fame semi-finalist Edgerrin James.
In the end, will the fact that LaDainian Tomlinson averaged only 46.8 rushing yards in 10 playoff games and more than a half-yard per carry (3.6 to 4.3) below his career regular-season average separate him from the small group of Hall of Famers who can say they were admitted on the first ballot?
That will be decided by the 48 Hall of Fame voters the day before Super Bowl LI. But in the eyes of those who competed with and against him, there seems to be little debate.
“LaDainian was the prototype that everybody wanted their running back to be like,’’ said long-time Pittsburgh Steelers’ Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu. “He’s a legend of this game.”