Had a chance to talk to LaDainian Tomlinson the other day. Quite a player, he is. Perhaps the best in the league. Quite a guy, too.
Think about it. He gets drafted by a franchise that is barely one rung above the Bengals on the NFL’s ladder of futility. And it doesn’t really get any better when he arrives.
The Chargers have won only 18 games the past four years. Haven’t caught a whiff of the playoffs since 1995. And to add to the losing, they find themselves stuck in a stadium dilemma with the city of San Diego, unable to agree on much, which has further stoked rumors that the franchise might be an option to become the new organization in Los Angeles that is desired by the NFL.
The new-age way to fix things in the NFL these days is to spend gobs of money in free agency and worry about the implications later. But the Chargers have gone against the grain of late, choosing instead to face their major rebuilding project by slashing their roster of high-priced veterans whose production failed to match their paychecks.
Shown the door this offseason were DEs Marcellus Wiley and Raylee Johnson, TE Stephen Alexander, OT Vaughn Parker and C Cory Raymer. Enigmatic WR David Boston was traded to Miami for a Cuban steak sandwich, and OLT Damion McIntosh and OG Kelvin Garmon were allowed to bolt as free agents.
Teams like the Eagles and Raiders have made a big splash in free agency this offseason. The Chargers have barely made a ripple, like a pebble in the ocean, signing the likes of LB Steve Foley, OG Mike Goff, OT Leander Jordan and WR Kevin Dyson. Pure excitement. They have a plan, albeit not the most popular one these days in southern California, but they are committed to not making the same mistakes in spending and keeping things close to the vest in hopes of continuing to add talent through the draft.
“I think in the past the (Chargers) have taken losses with signing big free agents and then guys not producing or getting hurt or what have you, and just really not living up to what the Chargers thought they would,” Tomlinson says in defense of San Diego’s frugality. “So they’re kind of taking a different avenue. They want to put quality players on the field but not rush into anything. Build the team through the draft and a little in free agency and have solid players, kind of like the Patriots are doing.”
Can’t argue there. The Pats have won two of the last three Super Bowls.
Still, he could be upset, making noise about wanting more money (a la Clinton Portis), wanting out of town (Terrell Owens, Corey Dillon), but he’s not that way. He plays the role of the good soldier and does his part to make the Chargers better.
He grew up admiring Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. No surprise there.
When popular veterans Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison were cut loose before last season, Tomlinson was thrown into a leadership role at a time when most young players typically have plenty else to think about.
“When you come into the league as a rookie, you see guys like Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison and you kind of figure these guys are going to be around for a while, so you’ll be able to learn a lot more from them before they decide to retire or whatever,” Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson says a leadership role should be for guys who have paid their dues, not necessarily for guys entering their third year as a pro. He had a lot of questions why, but he kept telling himself it was a business.
His position coach, Clarence Shelmon, who previously coached Smith in Dallas, pulled him aside and let him know what is expected of him on and off the field. Head coach Marty Schottenheimer reiterates the same thing all the time, that he is going to have to take a different road now in terms of leadership. And of course he didn’t back down from the responsibility.
After going 4-12 last season despite his 1,645 rushing yards and 100 catches, Tomlinson could have distanced himself and skipped part of the offseason program and wondered if his talents and production were being wasted. Well, that’s not an option with L.T.
“I hit it pretty hard throughout the whole offseason,” Tomlinson said of his workout regimen. “There is a time when I start cutting back toward the end of June, and July is really nothing but sprints and stuff pretty much. You chill out on the hard lifting and the real hard physical things that you’re doing. There is the time when you start thinking about not wearing yourself out before camp starts. Because once training camp starts, it’s over. There is no more time to really rest. It’s pretty much rapid fire from there.”
His offensive line — last year, this year, doesn’t matter — cannot be confused with one of the league’s best. It’s short on talent and long on injuries. When you combine the state of the offensive line with the fact the Chargers were playing from behind so often, his numbers look that much more staggering. Just think what a little continuity among his blockers, as the Chiefs have had recently with all their consecutive starts, would do for him. Scary, no?
“When you have the same starters, you start to build something,” Tomlinson said. “When you’re playing together, you can play blind out there. If the defense starts to do something, you can automatically adjust and you don’t have to worry about anything.”
Schottenheimer and general manager A.J. Smith have been preaching team unity of late, ridding themselves of guys who may not be putting the team first and getting guys who really want to be there. Tomlinson, the leader, is a follower of that mindset. He can see where they’re trying to take the program, having guys become closer and forming a bond.
“I think that’s a really big thing for pro sports,” he said. “Because in college, that’s all you know. In college, you develop your team, you work out without your teammates and you get to know them like brothers, and you don’t want to let them down. But when you get to pro sports, everybody goes their different ways. They’ve got families or they live here, they’ve got this or that, and you become separated. A lot of guys come in and out of different teams, and you really don’t know them, so it’s not the same feeling that you have in college of not letting your brothers down. It’s very important that I think you need to build a strong chemistry among your players and coaches where they don’t want to let each other down. And I see that developing among us.”
We talked a bit longer as part of a Q&A that will be running in Pro Football Weekly’s Preview 2004, which will be on sale at newsstands at the beginning of June. I found out he believes in Drew Brees as the quarterback of the future, his body hurts most after the first week of training camp, who he thinks is the NFL’s hardest hitter, why he just tosses the ball back to the referee after a touchdown instead of pulling out a cell phone, all that good stuff.
And then I asked him about the state of his golf game, because when I tried to reach him a few days earlier, he was on the links with some teammates.
On a good day, his score creeps down into the low 90s, he says. His short game is giving him trouble, but in back of the new house he is building outside of San Diego, he plans to have a chipping and putting green to hone his new craft. He vows to break into the 80s very soon, but not playing during the long NFL season hurts his game.
I tell him that he doesn’t necessarily have to put the clubs down. Ryan Leaf was occasionally seen skipping out of film sessions with his golf bag over his shoulder. “C’mon, I pestered, take a break once in a while. It’s not going to hurt you.”
“Nah,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s OK. You saw what happened to Ryan Leaf.”
BTW I liked the Ryan Leaf cut he got in at the end.