FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — LaDainian Tomlinson visited with the Jets’ newly signed 30-year-old running back Matt Forte a few weeks ago and noticed “the look.” It’s the same look Tomlinson had when he joined the Jets as a thirtysomething running back in 2010.
“I saw it in his eyes,” Tomlinson, the former Chargers and Jets running back, told Newsday at the Jets’ training facility on Wednesday. “He was passionate, he has something to prove, and he was chomping at the bit for the season to start so he can prove people wrong.”
It was the same look Tomlinson had when he signed with the Jets in 2010, after he had been released by the Chargers following a Hall of Fame-caliber nine seasons in San Diego. Tomlinson was 31 at the time, and despite putting up huge numbers with San Diego, he still had a huge chip on his shoulder.
“Even though I was a former MVP and a two-time league [rushing] leader, I still felt like I had something to prove, because I felt like I wasn’t done yet,” said Tomlinson, now an NFL Network analyst. “Yet the majority of the naysayers, they felt like I was pretty much done, so there was no question I was motivated to come here. I got rejuvenated by the style of football that Rex Ryan and this group were playing, and it paid off.”
Tomlinson enjoyed a terrific season in 2010, rushing for 914 yards and six touchdowns, and catching 52 passes for 368 yards. He helped the Jets get to their second straight AFC Championship Game, and played one more season before retiring.
Tomlinson sees Forte, who was not re-signed by the Bears after rushing for 8,602 yards and 45 touchdowns in eight seasons, as having a similar impact for this year’s Jets. Tomlinson also sees a major tactical advantage that Forte provides.
“The thing I like most is that it adds versatility to the offensive group,” Tomlinson said. “Here’s the thing. Defenses always try to key in on formations and different personnel groups. But when Matt Forte is in the game, they cannot do that because he’s equally effective coming out of the backfield [on pass patterns] as he is carrying it. [Defenses] can’t really play those games with this group. The way Chan Gailey runs his offense, we have no idea what Matt is going to be doing.”
While the consensus from most NFL analysts is that the Jets will struggle to duplicate last year’s 10-6 season, especially with a difficult early season schedule featuring five playoff teams in the first six games, Tomlinson is more bullish.
“I like the balance of this team,” he said. “Offensively, they can get it done, they can score points. They can be balanced with the addition of Forte, all the things that he’s able to do coming out the backfield. But at the same time, defensively they can stop people. They excel in getting off the field, in red-zone defense, in a lot of defensive categories. Because of that, I like this team.”
The one caveat: “My concern, if there is one, is if Ryan Fitzpatrick can duplicate what he did last year. If he can, I don’t see why they can’t contend.”
It also helps that perennial AFC East champion New England must deal with Tom Brady’s four-game suspension to start the season.
“The Jets still have to contend with Brady twice [after the suspension], but I’ll say this: If the Patriots slip up in their first four games, let’s say they go 1-3, and if the Jets, even though they have a tough schedule, if they get off to a 3-1 start, we’re looking at a whole different ballgame,” Tomlinson said. “The Patriots would be chasing them, and that’s very possible. Nobody knows how [Patriots backup QB] Jimmy Garoppolo is going to perform.”
Tomlinson sees another positive for the Jets, for this year and beyond: the coach.
“I think Todd Bowles is one of those guys that just understands the dynamics of running a football team and being the coach,” he said. “He’s a guy that’s played, so he understands the players. But at the same time, I don’t consider him a player’s coach. He’s not going to cater to the players. You’re going to do it this way, this is the way I expect you to do it.”
Tomlinson particularly liked the message Bowles sent the day Fitzpatrick came back to the Jets after a months-long contract impasse.
“One thing he said that caught my ear was about Geno Smith,” Tomlinson said. “[Bowles] said, ‘Hey, [Smith] knew it was coming. You make your own way in this league.’ That right there just tells me a lot about the man.”