LaDainian Tomlinson tells his life story in tattoos, from the branches of the family tree that cover his back to the pair of team logos inked on his calves. On his right leg is the oval of the Jets, and beneath it the imprint 2010--, which covers the continuation of his Hall of Fame career and a final push for a Super Bowl ring. The left leg carries a lightning bolt above 2001--2010, the years in which Tomlinson became the greatest running back San Diego has ever known, if not an entirely fulfilled one. "He truly wanted to give a championship to the city because the people opened up their arms to him, but when he left, he moved on," says New York offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who coached in San Diego from 2002 to '05. "I got a kick out of the tattoos when I saw the dates. That just shows you what kind of a pro he is. He closed that chapter. This is a new one."
Tomlinson's past and present collided on Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., where the Jets pulled out a 27--21 victory in the style that has marked the rollicking Rex Ryan era. San Diego, meanwhile, blew an 11-point third-quarter lead and surrendered 162 rushing yards to a team that had been in search of its old ground-and-pound identity. The Chargers came in 4--1, prepared to make a statement, and left facing what has become a familiar line of questioning.
Are they tough enough to win a Super Bowl? Especially if they have to beat a physical team on the East Coast during the playoffs? "I still feel like we're a better football team," said San Diego linebacker Takeo Spikes. "But it's all about who's the best football team that day."
Tomlinson, who woke up on Sunday morning vomiting and suffering from flu-like symptoms, accounted for just 51 yards before being pulled in the third quarter, but his presence hovered over the game. In the week before kickoff, Ryan anointed Tomlinson his starter and named him and former Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie captains for the opening coin flip. Though LT was measured in his comments last week, he was stung when San Diego released him after the 2009 season. "People thought I was starting to complain when we weren't running the ball that much," Tomlinson says. "The identity of the team was changing."
Says former Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal, who blocked for Tomlinson for five seasons, "They turned over the team to Philip Rivers. It wasn't LT's anymore."
In New York, Tomlinson is appreciated both for his running and receiving skills (he is third on the team in catches) and for his leadership, including his fiery pregame speeches at the center of a raucous Jets scrum—out-of-body experiences for a normally placid player. "That really never has been my personality to be that guy," Tomlinson says, "but sometimes you're called upon to be something for your team."
Against the Chargers, Tomlinson was lifted by his teammates, with Mark Sanchez throwing three touchdown passes to Plaxico Burress, Shonn Greene racking up 112 yards on 20 carries and Darrelle Revis picking off Rivers to set up a touchdown. As the Jets' locker room emptied late on Sunday afternoon, Tomlinson lingered by his stall, spent but happy. He had accomplished a small goal on the way to what he hopes is a larger achievement this winter.
"I'd be lying if I said this didn't add some satisfaction," Tomlinson said.
The 32-year-old Tomlinson is the bridge between two old AFL franchises built in the image of their coaches. The contrast in the styles between the bombastic Ryan and the mellow Norv Turner was never clearer than in the days leading up to the game. During his Wednesday conference call with the opposing team's beat writers, Ryan quickly found an opening to pound his chest. In 2007, when he was the Ravens' defensive coordinator, he'd been a candidate for the San Diego coaching job. Instead the Chargers chose Turner, an offensive expert who'd won two Super Bowls as Cowboys coordinator. In a typical burst of braggadocio, Ryan told the San Diego reporters last week that had the Chargers hired him, they would have won two Super Bowl rings. Ryan later called Turner to apologize, but he could not undo the sentiment that has shadowed San Diego teams of recent vintage: that they are supreme talents and chronic underachievers.
In 2006, Marty Schottenheimer's final season as coach, the Chargers went 14--2 only to lose a divisional playoff game at home to New England. The following year, Turner's first, they advanced to the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots in Foxborough—game-time temperature 23º, with 17-mph winds—and lost again. The Steelers eliminated the Chargers in Pittsburgh following the '08 season (26º, light snow), while the Jets did the job in San Diego the next season.