LT Countering Doubts With Yard After Yard
Countering Doubts With Yard After Yard
By GREG BISHOP
October 10, 2010
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — On the eve of training camp, the first night of the second act of his Hall of Fame career, LaDainian Tomlinson was summoned by a knock to the door. There stood his new Jets coach, Rex Ryan, who presented a thick stack of paper as a housewarming gift.
Inside, Tomlinson found 10 articles, more than 7,000 words that detailed his certain and steep decline. Headlines included “LT only makes the Jets weaker” and “Greene, not LT, will be key for Jets” and “Face facts, Jets, LaDainian is pretty much, LaDone.”
Tomlinson often says he pays no attention to his critics. But as the Jets prepared to play the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, he acknowledged that those words motivated him, from his first pre-dawn workout to last Sunday, when he passed Tony Dorsett for seventh on the career rushing list and burst into early contention for the best N.F.L. comeback story in 2010.
“No question,” said Anthony Lynn, the Jets’ running backs coach. “We all say we don’t listen to that stuff, don’t pay attention to it. But trust me, he heard it.”
On Long Island, Curtis Martin, the most productive running back in team history, watched Tomlinson’s resurgence with great interest. Martin faced similar, if not worse, criticism entering his 10th season. All he did was rush for a career-high 1,697 yards.
Martin, who ranks fourth on the career rushing list, tabbed Tomlinson, 31, as a fantasy football sleeper for his brother back in August. Last week, Martin called Tomlinson “better,” with “more talent and ability” than he possessed in his 10th season. If the Jets featured only Tomlinson, Martin said he could reach 1,500 rushing yards.
“It’s such a misconception that just because you’re getting old, you’re losing it,” Martin said. “Most lose their frame of mind to put in the same effort and attention. It’s human nature, almost like marriage. You stop bringing roses. You stop going on dates.”
A few years ago, the career rushing leader Emmitt Smith warned Tomlinson. As he approached 30, Smith said, Tomlinson would face more and more questions until retirement. That reached its apex this off-season, when San Diego released Tomlinson and the Jets immediately swooped in.
In May, at a restaurant down the street from his new house, Tomlinson revealed that he had resumed strenuous weight lifting for the first time in years. He said he felt healthy, energized. He called the Jets the “perfect opportunity” and the “perfect place,” and he detailed his destiny: a small-town kid from Texas who would, he predicted, bring a Super Bowl title to New York.
“That’s my story,” Tomlinson insisted then. “That’s the way it’s going to happen.”
Reminded of that conversation last week, Tomlinson smiled widely. He knew then what everyone knows now.
The Jets were his first choice all along. The Vikings also hosted Tomlinson, but he felt they wanted him to replace their backup, Chester Taylor, while the Jets offered a role he could define throughout the off-season.
Other factors included: his wife’s disdain for Minnesota’s winters; the Jets’ gift basket full of baby clothes for their first child, born this summer; and his first conversation with the owner Woody Johnson, who told Tomlinson, “Call me Woody.”
Mostly though, Tomlinson said, “this team has the opportunity, really and truly, more than any other team, to win a championship.”
Tomlinson impressed the Jets at a dinner on his recruiting visit, where Lynn insists he saw hunger not in Tomlinson’s stomach, but in his eyes. They ate at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., and after 10 minutes, quarterback Mark Sanchez said he felt as if he had known Tomlinson for 10 years.
The next morning, Sanchez dropped off a gift before Tomlinson departed.
“We all felt a connection with L.T.,” Sanchez said. “He’s got one of those personalities that people gravitate toward.”
But Tomlinson found more than an organizational fit with the Jets. He also found that his talents suited the team’s zone-blocking rushing attack.
In Lynn, he found a coach with a track record with running backs who changed their pace with a change of place. Lynn coached Jamal Lewis when he went from Baltimore to Cleveland and rushed for 1,304 yards. Lynn also steered Fred Taylor as Jacksonville switched offensive systems, and Taylor turned in two trend-bucking seasons after that.
Lynn played running back for a Denver offense that revolutionized zone blocking in the mid-to-late 1990s, and he said he believed Tomlinson’s instincts would make him “special” in that scheme. Lynn said it took most backs at least one season to adjust to zone blocking. Tomlinson picked it up faster than anyone Lynn had previously coached.
“Trust me, he’s not there yet,” Lynn said. “Wait till about midway through the season when we get real comfortable with this. He’s just touching the surface.”
Tomlinson also fit as well in the locker room as he did in his new offense. He gave one talk to the offense earlier this season, based on Vince Lombardi’s famous speech, “What It Takes To Be No. 1,” which Tomlinson has hanging in his house. Ryan was so stirred that he pulled Tomlinson down the hall into the defensive meeting room for an encore.
Naturally, though, the questions linger: Can Tomlinson keep up this pace? Fullback Tony Richardson said reporters had asked him that question more than 100 times, despite Tomlinson’s status as the starting running back over Shonn Greene, despite Tomlinson’s being the American Football Conference player of the week after his performance against Buffalo (133 yards, 2 touchdowns) last Sunday.
Even Tomlinson says he has trouble sleeping after games, with plays, blocks and catches running through his head on endless loops. But one run in particular against the Bills eased any remaining concerns, a 26-yard touchdown scamper during which Tomlinson jumped and cut and left Bills safety Donte Whitner diving for air.
“You say, ‘O.K., it’s still there,’ ” Tomlinson said.
The Jets still plan a cautious approach. Ideally, Ryan said, Tomlinson and Greene will each carry the ball 20 times per game.
Richardson said the Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen sent him a text message recently. It read, according to Richardson, “Tell LT, I scored 44 touchdowns after age 33.” Of course, when Richardson relayed this message, he found Tomlinson engaged in his typical Monday routine — massage, Pilates, stretching.
Martin says he sees some of himself in Tomlinson. Martin used to fly to California just to run the Santa Monica stairs. Those 300-plus steps allowed Martin to turn in perhaps his best year in his 10th season.
While Tomlinson does not expect that, he did say, “I expect to keep this up.”