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Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Updated: January 7, 3:00 AM ET
Likeable LaDainian on Super journey

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- If the New York Jets do win the Lombardi trophy that Rex Ryan already has zipped inside his travel bag, LaDainian Tomlinson likely will not stand among the most conspicuous reasons why.

In his first five games as a Jet, driven to prove he wasn't another aging Michael Jordan playing below the Washington Wizards' rim or another aging Willie Mays on his knees begging for his Mets to call, Tomlinson rushed for no fewer than 62 yards and for as much as 133.

LaDainian Tomlinson
It'll be smiles all around if LaDainian Tomlinson reaches his first Super Bowl.

In the 10 games he's played since, Tomlinson hasn't cracked 60 yards once.

This is what happens to 31-year-old running backs in a bloody, meat-grinder sport. The NFL does everything it can to nurture and protect its golden boy quarterbacks into their early 40s, but running backs? Those poor souls are on their own.

They take more hits and more punishment, and then they are discarded the way LT was discarded by the San Diego Chargers last year.

There was a reason Tomlinson looked completely shot while gaining 24 yards on 12 carries and hearing resounding boos from his own fans in a second-round loss to the Jets last postseason, and why an older Peyton Manning remained very much on top of his automated game in eliminating those same Jets the following week.

So no, Tomlinson isn't expected to affect Saturday night's wild-card game in Indianapolis half as much as the 34-year-old Manning will. But within the context of individual pursuits, LT's quest for his long lost championship ring remains the Jets' best angle on the board.

Tomlinson represents a likeable story on a largely unlikeable team. Ryan has turned the Jets into boastful renegades who promise world domination in every other breath, leaving the rest of the league to despise them.

But LT is as hard to despise as his boyhood idol, Walter Payton. Tomlinson has carried himself with the humility that escapes most superstars, and at a time when Brett Favre perfects the art of the embarrassing exit, LT winds down his Hall of Fame career with a quiet dignity and grace.

Mark Sanchez, Darrelle Revis, Santonio Holmes, Nick Mangold -- they're all more important to the Jets' cause than LT. Even Shonn Greene figures to play a more significant role than his father confessor in the backfield.

LaDainian Tomlinson
LaDainian Tomlinson made an emotional departure from San Diego after rushing for 12,490 yards in nine seasons with the Chargers.

None of them deserves a ring quite like Tomlinson deserves a ring.

"I can't imagine playing this game and not getting one," LT said Wednesday while tucked under a red cap bearing the logo of his new favorite team, the Mets.

"I dreamed about winning the Super Bowl championship since I was 6 years old, seeing Walter Payton do it," he continued. "So for me, I just couldn't see not doing it."

Tomlinson had a chance in the offseason to sign with Minnesota but decided he had a better shot of winning it all in New York. Smart call.

Last week, with Tomlinson at 914 rushing yards for the season, Ryan asked him whether he wanted to take the week off against Buffalo or whether he preferred to try to reach 1,000 yards for the ninth time.

"I didn't come here to rush for a thousand yards," LT told him. "I've had a lot of thousand-yard [seasons] in my career. That's not important to me. What's important to me is to be in this tournament and to have the opportunity to win a championship."

Ring or no ring, Tomlinson will go down among the greatest backs of all time. His MVP season in 2006, complete with his record 31 touchdowns, defines LT the player, while his 2006 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for his community service defines LT the man.

Tomlinson's offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, praised him Wednesday as a steady locker room presence, the same drama-free guy day after day after day. That consistency was undoubtedly a valuable trait during those times when Ryan threatened to turn the season into a five-month toga party.

LT gets it. He was smart enough in a recent offseason to work out with Manning when both were in Los Angeles on business. Manning asked LT whether he wanted to join him, they found an empty field at a community college and soon enough the Colts superstar was throwing passes out of the backfield to the Chargers superstar.

"I knew at that point why he was a Hall of Fame guy," Tomlinson said of Manning. "Just because to him it's always a game situation, and that's the way he treated it. It wasn't just like we were throwing the ball around. It was like, 'OK, it's Cover 2 here, you're running a cover route and I've got to hit you.' And it's nobody but us out there."

Too bad it can't be that way Saturday night, with Manning and Tomlinson as their teams' dominant forces. Manning plays a position that's most kind to a franchise player in his mid-30s, while Tomlinson plays a position that typically reduces a franchise player to rubble by his 30th birthday.

Ever the optimist, Ryan maintained the Colts might see the LT of old rather than the old LT. "He is fresh right now," the coach said, "and I think we're going to have a big game from him."

I don't. I wrote a column last March stating that the Jets' acquisition of the declining LT made little sense, especially given how they had shut him down in the playoffs, and the column was included in the packet of critical pieces Ryan handed Tomlinson in camp.

Ten months later, LT needs no such source of motivation. He desperately wants to win the big one and to run like he did in 2006 on the way there. The odds say he'll go 0-for-2 trying.

But sometimes sports can be as unpredictable as a Rex Ryan news conference, and sometimes the bright postseason lights can make an Edsel run like a Ferrari.

The unlikeable Jets will tell a likeable story if Tomlinson still has the motor to prove that nice guys don't always finish last.