Every statistical indicator stacks time squarely against LaDainian Tomlinson. For the past three seasons, his average yards per rush have declined. The drop-off was especially dramatic between 2007-08, a lofty 4.7 spiraling to a 3.8, seemingly settling at 3.3 last season, little space left for any additional tumbling.
Football is a vicious game, on both the field and couch. While the players battle each other in a primal pursuit of happiness, the fans analyzing their efforts are often merciless in their judgments. Forget the inherent pressures provided by a sixteen game schedule, fantasy league bragging rights alone turn perceived heroes to zeroes at the slightest sign of skill deterioration. There’s nothing terribly wrong with any of this, of course, but the sudden disposals are sometimes jarring. It’s just the nature of the beast, all parties involved, from paying customers to team owners, feeling a fireball heat.
Tomlinson’s status within this cauldron cannot yet be decided for certain. Optimistically, he is a highly accomplished running back in desperate need of rejuvenation, renaissance possible through a timely change in locale. The Jets banked on this possibility. In doing so, organizational decision-makers ignored an army of jaded armchair general managers nationwide, burned by Tomlinson in a failed pursuit for rotisserie glory*. There’s no doubt this consensus could outline a pessimistic case pretty convincingly, citing those same falling numbers mentioned above, or by simply pointing toward Tomlinson’s struggles against the Jets last January, when a heavily favored San Diego squad fell at home in the Divisional Playoffs. Indeed, in the face of this case, Tomlinson himself could be excused for feeling the pressure. Which is why it’s ironic when, earlier today, while answering a question about getting in rhythm with his new teammates on the offensive line, a relaxed Tomlinson said quite calmly, “It’s going to take time.” His tone was relaxed, hardly suggesting a man fearful that his time was running out.
Tomlinson did not make any grandiose statements, nor was he defensive. When addressing his superb pass catching ability out of the backfield, he said plainly, “Its just attention to detail, running the routes,” quiet assurance apparent. Upon first impressions, this calm kind of confidence defined Tomlinson. He was secure in his words, but direct, excitement betrayed only when discussing future collaborative efforts with Tony Richardson, another in a long line top-flight fullbacks who have been his lead blocker. “Tony’s been great for a long time,” said the former Charger, “I’m looking forward to working with him.” The question of whether Tomlinson can reignite his career in green and white will not be answered for months. But his positive presence was undeniable. The familiar tales of fading ‘backs attempting to outrun the years are almost always punctuated by unhappy endings. Even a legendary protagonist like Emmitt Smith, clad in Cardinals red and running against a backdrop of empty seats at Sun Devil Stadium, was not exempt.
But Tomlinson is walking into a different situation, starting over with a new franchise that is focusing on what he can do – not what he did. And if Tomlinson can catch passes, effectively spell first year starter Shonn Greene, and remain in good health, a golden opportunity exists to write his own happy ending.
Tomlinson’s teammates are certainly excited about his addition. “I think we got a steal,” said Nose Tackle Kris Jenkins. “I think we have the type of offense that suits him. He’s told me that. With him, Shonn Greene, Woodhead… we have some solid depth at running back.”
Offensive tackle Damien Woody echoed this type of positivity, and also assuaged any concern about Tomlinson and the Line adjusting quickly to each other. “We don’t block according to the ‘back. It’s up to the back to adjust to what we’re doing. But ]Tomlinson] is a veteran player… we don’t anticipate missing a beat.”
Fullback Tony Richardson was also complimentary, and eager to uncover the stylistic nuances that set Tomlinson apart. “So far, so good, his resume speaks for itself,” began Richardson, before delving into how a halfback and fullback get on the same page. “It just comes through repetitions. In KC, I had Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson. Larry was more of a straight, downhill runner, and Priest was more patient… you never knew what he was going to do… a lot of it is just watching the film together, and getting a feel.”
In a sport where being reactionary is sometimes a necessity, the Jets’ hope Tomlinson has a few jukes saved for father time.
*I don’t intend to diss rotisserie glory. Glory’s glory, even imaginary roster glory.