In the culmination of an event many months in the making, the Chargers officially released RB LaDainian Tomlinson on Monday after the back struggled through the 2009 season.
Tomlinson, a first-round pick in the 2001 draft, spent his entire nine-year career in San Diego, establishing himself as one of the more accomplished rushers of the last decade. L.T. owns or shares 28 teams records, and he is also the owner of two rushing titles (2006 and '07) and the NFL single-season touchdown record (31 in '06). A five-time Pro Bowler, his 12,490 rushing yards are the eighth-most in league history, and his 153 TDs rank No. 3 all-time.
However, Tomlinson's play started to decline in '08, forcing the Bolts to restructure his contract to keep him in San Diego. He then dropped off even more steeply this past season, when he had career lows in attempts, rushing yards, yards per carry and all receiving categories. At age 30 and due $5 million (including bonuses) in 2010, it was widely expected that the Chargers would part ways with L.T. prior to the new league year beginning on March 5. The move was announced Monday by team president Dean Spanos.
"This is a part of the business that I hate, and it's particularly hard when you're dealing with someone I consider a friend," Spanos said. "Change involving great players is never easy. I respect L.T. as much or more than any player I've ever known. And no one appreciates his contributions to this organization more than I do. That is why this is such a difficult announcement for me to make.
"It has been a privilege to work with him and witness his entire career. I'm proud of him and grateful to him for the way he has carried himself both on and off the field.
"No matter where he chooses to continue his career, in my mind L.T. will always be a San Diego Charger. His legacy as one of the greatest running backs the game has ever seen will be as a Charger."
Tomlinson has indicated that he wants to continue playing, and he's expected to receive offers from a number of teams looking to bolster their backfield. Although the TCU product, who turns 31 in June, is unlikely to find a starting job, he'll be coveted by some clubs as a short-yardage or goal-line rusher.
As for the Chargers, L.T.'s release leaves their running back corps seriously thin. Darren Sproles is a restricted free agent and is not viewed as an every-down back, and Michael Bennett is nothing more than a backup at this point. This makes it a virtual necessity for GM A.J. Smith to find a lead back either early on Draft Day or through free agency.
Meanwhile, Tomlinson will be fondly remembered in the city of San Diego, where he was an active member of the community and adored by the Chargers' fan base.
"I was fortunate to be the offensive coordinator here during L.T.'s rookie year in 2001, and it didn't take long to realize that we were dealing with a special player and a special individual," Chargers head coach Norv Turner said. "And when I returned to the Chargers in 2007, I was proud to be a part of his second NFL rushing title.
"L.T. is a true pro. He's one of the greatest runners this game has ever seen and words can't do justice to the things he's accomplished on and off the field."