When LaDainian Tomlinson said on Thursday that he doesn't expect to suit up for the San Diego Chargers next season, the thoughts from 31 fan bases around the league all asked the same question: Is LT coming here?
That's certainly the case in New England, where the Patriots have not had a reliable running game in years. The eternally changing combination of Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, LaMont Jordan, Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel has served as a backup chorus for Tom Brady's offense over the past three seasons. While Brady has shown that he doesn't always need a featured running back (see: 2007 regular season), the team has yet to win a championship since Corey Dillon's 1,600-yard season back in 2004.
And to examine whether Tomlinson can work in New England, Dillon's history is a good place to look.
When the Patriots traded for Dillon before the '04 season, he was approaching his 30th birthday. Tomlinson will be 31 in June. Tomlinson, with 12,490 yards and 138 rushing touchdowns to go with nearly 4,000 receiving yards and another 15 touchdown receptions, is a much more prolific back than Dillon was, but Dillon was as consistent as they come, topping 1,100 rushing yards in six of seven seasons in Cincinnati.
Dillon came with some baggage. While Tomlinson has never hesitated to speak out to the media, it wouldn't be fair to exactly say the same for him.
Of course, Dillon worked out fantastically with the Patriots in 2004. He rushed for 1,635 yards (a career high) and 12 touchdowns in the regular season before rushing for 292 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the three-game run to the Patriots' third Super Bowl in four years.
After that year, though, Dillon's age increasingly kept him off the field. When he was playing, he still contributed (1,545 yards, 25 touchdowns in the following two seasons combined), but he was no longer the No. 1 back he once was.
In the case of Tomlinson, it appears as though he's already at that point. Since 2006, when he rushed for an unbelievable 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns, his numbers have been on the sharp decline. He still led the league in 2007 in both categories, but dropped to 1,110 yards and 11 touchdowns in '08 and 730 yards and 12 touchdowns this past season.
He's also been hampered by nagging injuries. Patriots fans remember quite well the impact Tomlinson had on the 2007 AFC Championship. After bruising his knee the week before, Tomlinson stood on the sideline with his jacket and helmet on, watching as teammate Phillip Rivers played with a torn ACL. The Chargers lost that game, and they lost again in the following postseason, when Tomlinson suffered a groin injury. He had suffered a toe injury earlier in the year. They lost again in this year's divisional playoff matchup with the Jets, when Tomlinson gained just 24 yards on 12 carries.
(But hey, it wasn't a complete loss, as Tomlinson unveiled his debut music video in time for the playoffs.)
Seemingly understanding that he's no longer the best running back in football, Tomlinson took a pay cut last year to stay in San Diego. Now, he feels like he's a goner.
"I’m not coming back," Tomlinson told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I don’t believe I’ll be back in San Diego. I’ve accepted it."
The idea of Tomlinson in a Patriots jersey may cause some fans to salivate (and others to throw up, after his minor brouhaha and calling out of Bill Belichick), but he's clearly not the same guy he used to be. Dillon worked out in New England because his running style was predicated on him running defenders over — something he could do even while injured. Tomlinson's style is the exact opposite, relying on quickness and elusiveness (fast-forward to the :25 mark of this video for a reminder of how good he used to be). Those skills have unquestionably been eroding as he's dealt with minor injury after minor injury.
Tomlinson is by no means done being a player in the NFL, and he can still be a contributor to a winning team. Belichick will no doubt take a look at him, as he would any potentially available player. Yet it's more likely that he and the Patriots will see a once-great player on the back end of his career, someone who won't be able to carry the load of a No. 1 back but will seek some serious money.
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