LT helps on field, off field with cap relief

In many ways, LaDainian Tomlinson's contract never had to be touched this season, but Tuesday night's restructuring of his three-year deal means that the running back should be able to finish a Hall of Fame-caliber career in San Diego if he wishes.

Tomlinson wished to stay a Charger, which is why the two sides worked out a deal.

Tomlinson was scheduled to make $6.725 million this season. That's a fair number for a back who rushed for 1,110 yards and scored 10 touchdowns last season. It's particularly fair in the sense that his backup, franchise player Darren Sproles, is scheduled to make $6.621 million on a one-year deal. Starters should make more than backups, and there never was a thought by anyone in the organization to pay Sproles more than Tomlinson.

The crux of the problem was the final two years of Tomlinson's contract, the $17.275 million owed to him for 2010 and 2011 combined. The amount might have been a problem for the team because Tomlinson will be 30 this year, the age many running backs start to decline. He has rushed for 11,760 yards and scored 126 rushing touchdowns. Even Hall of Famers -- and I believe he will be a first-ballot enshrinee -- eventually slow down.

The twist in this story is that the team was more worried than the player about the next two seasons. That's completely different from the usual perspective of running backs who are getting older. Unfortunately for backs, their careers tend to be shorter than those of players at other positions. Once a back reaches 29 or 30, he is targeted for replacement. For fear of being cut, older backs try to demand guarantees in future years.

That wasn't the case with Tomlinson. The team wanted to figure out its future budgets, so it wanted him to reduce his salaries for 2010 and 2011. No one likes to take a pay cut, but Tomlinson accepted the idea and tried to work with the team. The team came out ahead because it didn't rush a tricky negotiation that at times was filled with emotion and tension.

The future reductions were important for San Diego in trying to lock up Chargers whose contracts are coming up in the next couple of years.

"LT has helped us through the years on the field, now he's helped us off the field," Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said.

Both sides worked together professionally. There were no deadlines. There were no "final" proposals. There were no threats of his being traded.

Compromise is the key to any negotiation. Tomlinson is the highest-paid running back on the team. That's fair. Tomlinson gave the team some salary-cap room, which was needed because his old cap number and Sproles' salary cap figure would have eaten up $14.4 million in 2009. Something needed to be done.

Sure, Tomlinson could have been cut and ended up with the New Orleans Saints, but it wouldn't be the same. That would be like watching Emmitt Smith in a Cardinals uniform, Franco Harris in a Seahawks uniform or Eddie George in a Cowboys uniform. Tomlinson was born to be a Charger. Now, LT can stay in San Diego on more acceptable terms.

Senior NFL writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.