Chargers Look to Fill Tomlinson's Cleats

RB LaDainian Tomlinson (Donald Miralle/Getty)

Another Chargers great will finish his career elsewhere.

LaDainian Tomlinson joins a long list of former Chargers who will try to earn that elusive Super Bowl ring somewhere else. Tomlinson's thrilling and productive nine-year run with the Chargers came to a close after the team released prior to the combine.

The news wasn't shocking; it was clear both parties were primed to move on.

The Chargers are no longer a running team, electing to move the ball through quarterback Philip Rivers' right arm.

And Tomlinson, who has seen his numbers consistently drop since coach Norv Turner replaced Marty Schottenheimer after the 2006 season, is eager for a fresh start as well.

"It was a long time coming," said Tomlinson, the NFL's 2006 MVP. "The team has obviously changed a lot -- the focus is now in a different area. So sometimes changes need to be made."

Tomlinson will embrace a change of scenery as he tries to prove he can still be productive next year, a season in which he will be 31 years old.

But Tomlinson, who is coming off career lows in yards-per-carry and rushing yards, speculates he can contribute on and off the field.

"I still think I have a lot to give to the game, not only the performing part of it on the field, but also the mentoring part of teaching young guys, guys that inspire to be great," he said. "I think that is a quality that I have that can help some teams."

Tomlinson had hoped to exit San Diego after taking the Chargers to their first Super Bowl title. In fact he and Drew Brees, when they were drafted in 2001, made a vow to do just that.

But Brees was let go and had to find his ring in New Orleans.

Tomlinson hopes to follow suit somewhere, much like Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau -- two other ex-Chargers greats -- did with New England.

It was clear, though, Tomlinson was disappointed that Super Bowl win didn't come with the team that took a chance on him when trading out of the No. 1 slot and a shot at Michael Vick to select him fifth overall.

Tomlinson was emotional at his farewell press conference about what his time in San Diego meant to him and his family.

The classy Tomlinson always carried himself the right way, which endeared him to thousands of Chargers fans.

"I look back on it and can say I gave it everything I had," he said. "I absolutely did. I trained the right way, I went about it in the community the right way, and I felt like I did everything I possibly could to win a championship. Sometimes things just don't happen."

But it could happen in the future for Tomlinson and some other team. That thought erased the tears and returned with it Tomlinson's million-watt smile.

"This is not the end of the world at all," he said. "I'm not retiring and I'm very excited and I really believe I'm going to have that opportunity to win a championship."

INSIDE SLANT

It's a question which could dog Chargers fans for years. A mystery which really never will be solved.

It comes to light again in the wake of the team releasing the incomparable LaDainian Tomlinson.


RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Donald Miralle/Getty
As the future Hall of Famer heads for another team, he does so by leaving behind an offense which is pass-first.

This isn't always the way it was.

Not when Tomlinson, the NFL's MVP in 2006, was in his prime, playing for a head coach who embraced the run in Marty Schottenheimer.

The Chargers, with Tomlinson leading the way, were inching their way into the category of being an elite team. After going 14-2 while riding Tomlinson in his MVP season in which he set the NFL mark for touchdowns and led the NFL in rushing, the wheels came off.

The Chargers coughed-up a fourth-quarter lead to the Patriots in the playoffs and lost a home game they should have won.

The result was a percolating power struggle came to a head, and GM A. J. Smith got his way with Schottenheimer being canned.

But one can't help but wonder: Would the Chargers have won that elusive first Super Bowl if Schottenheimer and his pound-and-ground approach stayed in place?

"Definitely you look back when you don't win a championship, you always look back and wonder what if?" Tomlinson said. "I do. But at the same time things always change in the NFL and changes were made and you roll with the punches."

But Tomlinson was never the same -- and the back of his football card proves it.

"I would say since Marty left -- and I'm just being honest -- the focus of running the football the way it was every year, my numbers dropped every single year. So 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 of years? I certainly don't think so."

Tomlinson was the benefactor of a coach, as he put it, placing "the ball in his stomach."

But that thinking went south when Norv Turner took over for Schottenheimer. He decided, with Smith's blessing, to move the ball through the air, that the running game would be marginalized as the team decided its best shot at greatness came on Philip Rivers' right arm and not Tomlinson's two legs.

But three years later are the Chargers any closer to reaching, let alone winning, a Super Bowl? Turner was brought in because the Chargers' brass believed he was better wired to win in the playoffs.

While the first year proved that point when the Chargers -- many think on the fumes of Schottenheimer's last club -- advanced to the AFC title game.

But since, it's been one rough playoff patch after another for the Chargers. And while Turner can point to a 3-3 playoff record while wearing Chargers headsets, the truth is he has lost three of his last four playoff games and the team, at this point in the offseason, seems to have regressed.

Marty-ball is long gone. So too, is Tomlinson.

But Chargers fans will long debate if the club's eventual kicking of them both to the curb was the right thing to do then, as well as now.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES


RB Darren Sproles
John Russell/AP
--There is increased chatter Darren Sproles will not be brought back as the Chargers aren't inclined to pay last year's franchise player $7 million in 2010.

--LaDainian Tomlinson nearly got through his emotional farewell press conference without breaking down. But when he brought up the support of his family over his nine years in San Diego, the tears couldn't be turned off. "I was all prepared and said I wasn't going to do this," he said after nearly a minute pause. "Sometimes emotions is what makes a person and as you guys know, I've always wore my emotions on my sleeves. So for that I'm not sorry."

--Tomlinson's agent, Tom Condon, said the team did his client a favor by releasing him early in the offseason. "That part of it was positive," Condon said.

--WR Vincent Jackson was convicted of his second DUI charge and could be suspended a game or two next season by the NFL.

--ILB Stephen Cooper admits the Chargers' dressing area will be different without No. 21 in his cubicle in its southeast corner. "He was universally respected and it will be strange not having him in the locker room," Cooper said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I told him I wish on my part that I could have contributed more as a GM to make it happen for him to hold that trophy or a Super Bowl ring." -- GM A.J. Smith on failing to build a Super Bowl team while Tomlinson was playing for the Chargers.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Running back: With Tomlinson being released and the team balking at paying Darren Sproles $7 million next season, this shortcoming has grown in importance and needs to be addressed.

2. Defensive tackle: Jamal Williams missed all but one game last year injured; the Chargers have to face the fact he is returning for his 13th season this year. A replacement here is needed.

3. Cornerback: If the Chargers go a different direction in regard to starter Antonio Cromartie, a replacement needs to be found. He may not be on the roster, and that includes former first-round pick Antoine Cason

. FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--DT Alfonso Boone filled a need last year but the team looks to get younger here.

--TE Brandon Manumaleuna is a solid blocker and should return.

--C Dennis Norman is at a spot where the team has depth and won't come back.

--WR Kassim Osgood is a three-time Pro Bowler as a special-teamer; he wants to try his luck at receiver and could flee.

--OL Jon Runyan is going to retire and run for Congress.

--DT Ian Scott doesn't have the upside the Chargers are looking for and will depart.

--TE Kris Wilson is a solid special-teams player, but if someone offers him more of a chance to contribute in a base offense, he's gone.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (*indicates restricted because of uncapped year)

--RT Jeromey Clary will return but will be pushed by Brandyn Dombrowski for a starting job.

--*ILB Tim Dobbins is a solid backup; he should return.

--*WR Malcom Floyd could likely get more passes thrown his way elsewhere, but he likes San Diego and will likely take a little less to remain here.

--*DT Antonio Garay was a late-season addition and doesn't figure in the team's plans moving forward.

--*C Eric Ghiaciuc won't have a place with the number of linemen -- when healthy -- ahead of him.

--*OLB Marques Harris is a decent pass rusher but the Chargers will likely see him go where he would get more of a chance to contribute.

--*WR Vincent Jackson is the team's top receiver and will be brought back -- unless the team has grown tired of his immaturity; that's doubtful after two 1,000-yard years.

--*DL Travis Johnson will probably have to settle for less money, but the former first-round pick of the Texans might have found a home in San Diego.

--*LT Marcus McNeill is a stud at left tackle and among the team's biggest offseason priorities.

--*OLB Shawne Merriman will return, possibly, if willing to swallow his pride and lower his price tag. A motivated Merriman playing on a one-year deal could be attractive to the Chargers.

--*RB Darren Sproles isn't likely to be named the franchise player again this year and could flee if offered a long-term deal.

--*LB Dontarrious Thomas seldom saw the field when arriving late last year and appears to be a goner.

--*QB Charlie Whitehurst is learning a ton at the No. 3 spot, so he finally absorbs one more year of education and then moves on.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

--OLB Antwan Applewhite can deliver a burst off the ball and is keen on special teams. He should be brought back.

--FB Mike Tolbert continues to improve and the Chargers could give him more carries in the base offense, depending on the situation at running back.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: None.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: None.

PLAYERS LOST

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson (released).

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