Commentary

LT's legacy: heart and hefty rebuke

Tomlinson gave the Jets everything he had -- and then he really let 'em have it

Updated: June 19, 2012, 8:45 AM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

After signing with the New York Jets in 2010, LaDainian Tomlinson tattooed a Jets logo on his right calf. A few days before his first game, he delivered a moving speech to the team, reciting famous Vince Lombardi quotes with such passion that it left some teammates and coaches on the verge of tears.

Tomlinson was all-in, no doubt about it. For two years, he graced the Jets' locker room with his regal presence, inspiring off the field and contributing in full- and part-time roles in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

Unfortunately, his legacy with the Jets is tinged with a regrettable irony. For all the good he did, galvanizing those around him, Tomlinson hurt the team with his stinging criticism of the locker-room discord.

[+] EnlargeLaDainian Tomlinson
Howard Smith-US PresswireLaDainian Tomlinson retires with 13,684 rushing yards, fifth most in NFL history.

It happened a couple of weeks after the season, when, in an interview during Showtime's "Inside the NFL," Tomlinson poured kerosene on the fire. He said the team dissension was "as bad as I've ever been around" -- an opinion that carried enormous weight because of his stature.

In the same interview, Tomlinson said Mark Sanchez was "pampered." He also unloaded on Rex Ryan, claiming the coach's bold predictions ended up hurting the team. In five short minutes, Tomlinson -- always known as a classy, thoughtful player -- put a name and a face on the Jets' internal strife.

A Hall of Fame name.

Tomlinson, a free agent, knew he wasn't returning to the Jets. Deep down, he may have already known his career was over. That will become official Monday, when he signs a one-day contract and retires as a member of the San Diego Chargers, his forever team.

When he sat down for that interview, Tomlinson probably was looking ahead to his next career -- television -- knowing he could accelerate the process by making a headline. Controversy sells. Strong opinions are a must. That's how it goes for ex-jocks in career limbo, floating somewhere between the gridiron and the TV studio.

Maybe Tomlinson was simply telling the truth, but he gave legs to the story by dishing so much dirt. His comments jarred the organization, but no one criticized Tomlinson, out of respect for him.

If that's how Tomlinson is remembered in New York, well, it'll be too bad because he had a nice, little run with the Jets. He was supposedly washed up when he arrived in 2010, but he beat out Shonn Greene for the starting job and finished with a team-high 914 rushing yards, making people forget about Thomas Jones.

It was a pleasure to watch him run because you knew that, every time he touched the ball, he was running with a purpose. There's nothing more inspiring in sports than seeing a once-great player perform like he's young again, and Tomlinson provided plenty of those moments in 2010.

No doubt, Tomlinson was motivated by his release from the Chargers, and that fire carried him for a year. By last season, only embers remained. He wasn't the same player, but he embraced his role as the third-down back.

Tomlinson, the NFL's MVP in 2006, was an atypical superstar in that he willingly accepted a smaller role with the Jets. His greatest show of unselfishness occurred at the end of the 2010 regular season. Even though he needed only 86 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for the ninth time in his career, he agreed to sit out the final game -- which was meaningless -- to rest up for the playoffs.

That gesture said so much about Tomlinson, whose only goal was to win a Super Bowl. He will go down in history as one of the best players never to win a championship, and that has to hurt because he had two great shots.

He aggravated a knee injury and lasted only two carries in the 2007 AFC Championship Game, a Chargers loss to the New England Patriots. In the 2010 title game, he was held to 16 yards on nine carries, failing to gain a yard on one of the biggest plays of the game.

It was fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter, the Jets trying to rally from a 14-point deficit against the Pittsburgh Steelers. For a moment, Tomlinson saw daylight, a path to the end zone. Many expected him to leap over the pile, as he had done so many times in his career, but he never got off the ground.

The hole closed and he was swallowed up, a yard short.

One yard shy and one interview in which he was anything but. Hopefully, they won't overshadow the rest of it.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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