Friday, March 13, 2009 Updated: March 14, 3:21 AM ET
Keeping L.T. bucks troubling trend
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
Even if you're not a San Diego Chargers fan, you should be thankful LaDainian Tomlinson has the chance to finish his career with that franchise.
The Chargers' restructuring of the final three years of his deal means they still value his contributions to the organization. Tomlinson's willingness to reconfigure his contract to create more cap space for the team shows how much he wants to remain in the city. And the general public gets to watch a longtime star get a little bit closer to ending his playing days where he ultimately belongs.
This topic is being raised for one main reason: It's becoming nearly impossible these days for aging stars to stick with the teams that helped make them great. After all, Brett Favre spent this past season with the New York Jets after 16 legendary years with the Green Bay Packers. Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas both made their names with the Miami Dolphins, but they wound up playing with the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, respectively, in 2008. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers recently released Derrick Brooks -- a man who had spent 14 years in that city and had a huge effect on the community. He still is hoping to play one more season.
These players, by the way, are just some of the examples that immediately come to mind. This offseason alone already has seen the open market filled with familiar names, including former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison (who remains unsigned), former Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins (who signed with the Denver Broncos) and former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking (who signed with Dallas).
The Baltimore Ravens also had a chance to lose star middle linebacker and unrestricted free agent Ray Lewis. Fortunately for both parties, he re-signed with that team after discovering his open market value was comparable to the average person's 401K -- it was declining at a rapid rate.
We no longer can assume that being the face of a franchise means a star player will get to finish his career with that organization. It's happening increasingly less, and that's just not good for the game. It's one thing to say the NFL is a business, which means most players inevitably change addresses. But there's also something to be said for watching a dominant player go out with the team that helped him attain that excellence in the first place.
It used to be that people would shake their heads when a future Hall of Famer like Emmitt Smith played out his career with the Arizona Cardinals or a Joe Montana wound up with the Kansas City Chiefs after all those years with the San Francisco 49ers. Now, hardly anybody bats an eye when these moves are made. We just chalk them up to the price of sustaining a lengthy career in an unforgiving league. For every player like New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan -- who finished his career with a Super Bowl ring on the only pro team he'd ever played for -- there are plenty more veterans who have learned how hard it is to maintain such long-standing ties to their employers.
That's why Tomlinson's ability to stay in San Diego a little longer is so significant. When discussions about restructuring his contract began, he easily could have gotten all high and mighty about what he's given that franchise over the past nine years, specifically 11,760 rushing yards and 141 touchdowns. He also could have been influenced by the recruiting efforts of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, a former teammate of Tomlinson's in San Diego. Instead, Tomlinson kept a clear head and realized it was best to stay put.
In fact, Tomlinson's agent, Tom Condon, said there was never any real fear that this latest deal wouldn't be completed. First off, it helped that Tomlinson is extremely close to Chargers owner Dean Spanos. And even though there isn't enough guaranteed money in the contract to keep the Chargers from eventually cutting the 29-year-old Tomlinson next season, the feeling is that he has far more job security through 2010 because of this deal. "The contract itself was better than the one he had," Condon said.
It shouldn't be surprising that Tomlinson was so eager to stay in San Diego. He was there when that team was lousy, and he's been the most critical component of its revival. He also can see a team that has Super Bowl potential when it's completely healthy -- especially if outside linebacker Shawne Merriman comes back strong from season-ending knee surgery last fall -- and Tomlinson has more help in the backfield. The emergence of fellow running back
Darren Sproles will mean less pounding for Tomlinson in the long run.
As Tomlinson told local reporters after agreeing to restructure his deal: "I love San Diego and being a part of this team with my teammates. My No. 1 priority was to stay here in San Diego. I truly believe this is the place that gives me the best chance to be successful and win a championship. I want to finish the job we started when I got here eight years ago. My heart has always been in San Diego. I couldn't imagine putting on another uniform."
Chargers fans surely feel the same way. Even though Tomlinson is coming off the worst statistical season of his career (he gained 1,110 yards), he means more than just numbers to that franchise. He always has carried himself as a consummate professional, and he has set a fine example for the younger teammates who surround him. Those are the kinds of assets a team can gain when it finds a way to keep a future Hall of Famer who remains productive.
See, this isn't just a story about how much Tomlinson has left in the tank. It's about a veteran understanding how he got to this point in his career and how he'd ideally like to see his playing days end. Sure, there's always the possibility that Tomlinson might not finish his career in San Diego. But for the moment, it's nice to see that he at least wants to make a strong run at realizing such a difficult dream.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.