A Look at LaDainian Tomlinson's Legendary Career in San Diego
Ask any Chargers fan to talk about what they remember best about their team and you'll get a variety of answers from our franchise's rich history.
Older fans will reminisce about the golden age of the "Air Coryell" offense manned by Hall of Famers Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, and Charlie Joiner. Others will talk about the 1994 Super Bowl run made by the "San Diego Super Chargers," their ridiculously catchy theme song, and the grit of their defensive leader and team captain, another Hall of Famer, Junior Seau.
But for me, the one thing I remember best about the San Diego Chargers was their 2000 season.
That year I watched every snap of every game as the quarterback who-shall-not-be-named (okay, it was Ryan Leaf) "led" this team to a 1-15 record. At one point I remember changing my expectations mid-season and would find myself ecstatic if we somehow managed to squeeze out a double-digit effort from the offense -- even if it was in a blowout.
I remember that season vividly for two specific reasons.
First, the nightmare that was the 2000 season was in stark contrast to the success the Bolts would enjoy for the rest of this decade.
And second, more importantly, it allowed them to acquire in the 2001 NFL Draft perhaps one of the greatest to ever don the blue-and-gold, running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
To honor his career in San Diego, the Chargers announced that they will be retiring Tomlinson's number 21 jersey this season, placing him in the same company as other San Diego legends Lance Alworth, Dan Fouts, and Junior Seau to become just the fourth player in Chargers history to receive this distinction.
One of the Most Successful Decades in Chargers' History
It's not every day that a number-five overall pick of the NFL Draft can have an impact on a franchise as big as the one Tomlinson had with the Chargers. Hell, it's not even every decade that something like this happens.
In his first ever game as a Charger, LaDainian rushed for 113 yards and scored 2 touchdowns in a home game against Washington. And from that moment on, the franchise's fortunes turned and this team hasn't looked back since.
At numberFire we have two key in-house metrics, Net Expected Points (NEP) -- which measures a player's contributions to a team's chances of scoring above or below expectation-level -- and nERD -- which measures how many points a team would outscore an average opponent by on a neutral field.
It's no coincidence that the Chargers' rise from their -5.00 nERD in 2000 -- meaning on average, this 2000 season team would have lost to a neutral opponent that season by five points -- to a peak nERD of 9.86 in 2006 coincides almost perfectly with Tomlinson's NEP totals over this same time period.
In the six-year period between the Chargers Super Bowl XXIX loss to the San Francisco 49ers and Tomlinson's arrival in 2001, the Chargers managed just 5.8 wins per year and made the playoffs once.
Thanks in large part to L.T.'s contributions on the field during his nine seasons in San Diego, the Chargers amassed 84 total wins (9.3 per season), five AFC West titles (2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009), and a trip to the AFC Conference Championship game in 2007.
The Raider Hater
For all the success L.T. brought to this team, perhaps just as -- if not more -- important than all the wins, division titles, and playoff appearances were the victories over Oakland.
Prior to L.T.'s rookie season in 2001, the Chargers accrued a losing record against the Raiders dating all the way back to the 1960's, with a 30-51-2 mark against them. However, that all changed in the 2000's once L.T. came on board.
During his nine years in San Diego, the Chargers tallied a 14-4 record against Oakland. More impressively, starting in the second-half of the 2003 season, the Chargers didn't lose a single game to them until L.T.'s departure in 2010.
A true Charger in every sense of the word, Tomlinson refused to lose to that particular franchise and willed his Chargers teams to wins with some superb performances. He tallied games of 243, 198, 187, 164, and 153 yards rushing against the Raiders, including a 250-yard, 2-touchdown effort in 2003 that kicked off the Chargers' 13-game winning streak over the Silver and Black.
While there is no doubt that L.T. gave it his all in every game he suited up for, he always seemed to bring a little something extra for the Raiders. In his 18 games against Oakland with the Chargers, L.T. averaged 127.5 total yards and 1.4 touchdowns per game against them. To put these figures into perspective, Tomlinson's numbers against Oakland eclipses his overall career averages of 108.6 yards and 0.9 touchdowns per game.
All in all, it's clear that if Tomlinson loved winning, he hated losing to San Diego's long-time rivals even more.
The Man, the Myth, the (Fantasy Football) Legend
Tomlinson grew up idolizing Jim Brown, Walter Payton, and Emmitt Smith, three of the greatest to ever play the game. And as a young man playing football for University High School in Waco, Texas he looked to model his game after these all-time greats. Largely influenced by these Hall of Famers, L.T. eventually developed an all-around playing style that he would call his own.
LaDainian possessed an innate ability to play the running back position. His vision, rhythm, and timing on the field coupled with his otherworldly athleticism made him a force to be reckoned with. With ankle-breaking agility, breakaway speed, and a vicious stiff arm that has left many a defender lying helplessly on the ground, L.T. made sure that if he couldn't get around you, then he would go through you.
But to say that L.T. was a rare, all-around talent that could do it all is a massive understatement.
When Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was asked what their typical strategy against the Chargers was, he answered, "If you're playing the San Diego Chargers, the number-one thing you have to concern yourself with is stopping L.T. in the running game."
He added, "The number-two thing is stopping L.T. in the passing game."
Tomlinson's versatility has allowed him to hold the unique distinction of being the only player to ever record a receiving, rushing, and passing touchdown in the same season in four separate years (2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007).
But of all the things Tomlinson could do on the field, there's one thing he did best, and that's score touchdowns.
The Touchdown King
The one thing about watching Chargers games during L.T.'s tenure with the team was that you just knew, if the team got into the red zone that they were coming away with a touchdown.
During Tomlinson's record breaking 2006 season, L.T. scored a touchdown on an unreal 52.4% of his 42 rushing attempts within the opponent's 10-yard line. And so prolific was the Chargers offense in the red zone that then-head coach Marty Schottenheimer renamed it the "gold zone."
Over a nine-year career in San Diego, Tomlinson ran for 138 touchdowns on the ground, caught another 15, and threw 7 more through the air for an average of 17.8 touchdowns per season. Three times L.T. led the league in rushing touchdowns, including 2006 where he not only set the NFL single-season rushing touchdown record (28), but also the total touchdowns record (31), on his way to breaking Paul Hornung's single-season scoring record (176) that had stood for 46 years with his 186.
With all these trips to the end zone, perhaps the one that tops them all came on December 10, 2006 against the Denver Broncos.
Taking a handoff from quarterback Philip Rivers on the Broncos' seven-yard line, L.T. took the ball up the left sideline and into the end zone to break the single-season touchdown record.
But this moment stands out to me not just because I was watching history in the making and not only because it came on his third touchdown of the day against a bitter divisional rival but because of how he responded almost immediately afterward.
Ever the class act, and in line with his unselfish nature, right as he crossed the goal line to make NFL history, L.T. turned back to his teammates to call them over and give credit to where he felt it was due. He didn't see it as his record, he saw it as the team's and reiterated it in his interviews with the media.
"Once I got over the pylon," Tomlinson said, "my initial thought process was to bring every guy on the offensive unit over to share that moment.
"When we're old and can’t play this game anymore, them are the moments we are going to remember, that we'll be able to tell our kids, tell our grandchildren. We can talk about something special that we did. We made history today."
One look at that statement tells you exactly why he was so beloved by coaches, teammates, and fans alike. On a day that should have been all about "me," LaDainian instead chose to use almost exclusively the word "we."
A Living Legend
It seems as if every time L.T. stepped onto the field, he was making history. Indeed, after a career of broken records and awards received, a look at any all-time list will have you finding Tomlinson's name near (if not at) the top of it.
Upon retiring from the NFL after 11 seasons, L.T. stood fifth in career rushing yards (13,684), seventh in all-purpose yards (18,456), second in career rushing touchdowns (145), and third in total touchdowns (162).
And the list of accolades and records next to his name are endless.
His many honors include 5 Pro Bowls, 3 First-Team All-Pro selections, 3 Second-Team All-Pro selections, an NFL MVP (2006), 2 rushing titles, a Walter Payton Man of the Year (2006), and a Bart Starr Man of the Year (2007).
Among his 59 separate NFL records (according to his Wikipedia page, at least) is the single-season touchdowns record (31), the single-season rushing touchdowns record (28), and the record for most points scored in a single season (186).
With a career filled with awards, records, and history-making moments, if you wanted to tell me that Tomlinson was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, I'd be hard-pressed to argue against you on that one.
Living In A Fantasy
If you aren't a San Diego Chargers fan but still found yourself rooting for number 21 on Sundays, chances are that he was on one of your fantasy football teams. And those of us lucky enough to land L.T. were rarely, if ever, disappointed by him.
Between 2001 to 2008, L.T. finished as a top-seven running back in every year, including finishing as a top-three back in six out of those eight seasons.
Most famously, Tomlinson led all fantasy football players in scoring in 2006, when he amassed 2,323 yards from scrimmage and 33 total touchdowns (including two passing scores) against just one lost fumble. Putting up the expected production of two running backs with just one roster spot, his 26.6 points-per-game average in standard leagues (and 30.1 points-per-game in PPR) helped lead countless owners to league titles that season.
Not surprisingly, Tomlinson's 2006 season also marked the second most valuable NFL rushing season of this century. His 60.47 Rushing NEP nearly doubled the 34.15 put up by second place-finisher, Marion Barber, that season. And beyond fantasy football, this efficiency in the ground game had very significant real-life implications as well, leading the Chargers to the playoffs with a league-best 14-2 record that year.
The Heart and Soul of America's Finest City
It cannot be overstated just how big of an impact Tomlinson's arrival in San Diego had on the Chargers franchise. His attitude on the field and leadership by example brought a winner's mentality to a team that had been missing in seasons past. Most importantly, L.T. once again gave this city and its fans something to cheer for.
But Tomlinson gave more than just joy to football fans in San Diego and around the NFL on Sundays. He truly made San Diego his home and gave back to the community. Indeed, the same season the Tomlinson won league MVP honors in 2006, Tomlinson was also named the Walter Payton Man of the Year.
Tomlinson's former head coach, Marty Schottenheimer, once called him "the finest running back to ever wear an NFL uniform." Quite high praise from a man that has both played and coached in the NFL over five separate decades, and deservingly so.
While his exact place in NFL history will always be a topic of debate, there is one thing that's for certain: Tomlinson has not only earned his place among the Chargers' all-time greats, he's also earned a spot next to his childhood idols as one of the league's greatest running backs of all time.