LaDainian Tomlinson is beginning to look like the exception to the rule. The NFL life expectancy of a top-tier running back is 30. Get older than that and you usually experience two things — aching body parts and packing. That's what the sporting actuarial tables tell you at least, and it was what they told the Chargers when they decided on Feb. 22 that the future Hall of Famer's time was up.
Even though he'd suffered with sliding production the past three seasons, Tomlinson refused to believe them and was fortunate that neither did Jets head coach Rex Ryan. At Ryan's urging, the Jets replaced productive Thomas Jones with Tomlinson. The Jets signed L.T. after the Chargers made him a free agent following the disappointing end of the 2009 season.
Ironically, it was the Jets who last beat Tomlinson's Chargers, and they did it in large part by stopping him cold in a stunning 17-14 playoff loss in his own stadium, in which Tomlinson rushed for only 24 yards, a sad end to what had been a brilliant nine-year career in San Diego.
Although both history and his old employer argued forcefully that he was finished, Tomlinson claimed all along he was merely a victim of circumstance. To him, it was not injury or declining skills that had suddenly hobbled him, but rather dwindling opportunity and the presence of a declining offensive line in front of him.
After four games, L.T. has the clubhouse lead in the redemption category and he's running away with the argument, just as he for so long ran away from NFL defenses massed to stop him.
Tomlinson had his first 100-yard rushing game in nearly two years, a 19-carry, 133-yard performance against the Buffalo Bills in which he also scored twice. He is averaging 85 rushing yards a game (341 yards) and rapidly erasing the memory of what had been the worst year of his career.
Tomlinson averaged only 3.3 yards a carry in 2009, a yard off his career average, and looked like he might struggle to pass Tony Dorsett for seventh place on the all-time rushing list, but his performance against the Bills did that, leaving him with 12,831 yards. He is within 428 yards of passing Eric Dickerson in sixth place and 831 away from Jerome Bettis, and the way he's going, both seem possibile.
While records are fine, Tomlinson's goal this season was simply proving that while many running backs may not survive for long into their third decade, he is not among them.
"I know what age I am,'' Tomlinson said after those 133 yards helped improve the Jets' record to 3-1. "It doesn't mean I can't play. I never lost confidence (in myself). I always knew I could do it.''
"I thought he was going to be outstanding,'' Ryan said. "He's better than that.''
There are 12 games left this season, and many things can change, especially for a 31-year-old running back with a lot of tread lost on his tires. But after four weeks of football LaDainian Tomlinson has been what he said he would be. He's been L.T. the way he used to be, and pro football is better for it.
Ron Borges is a columnist for the Boston Herald.