If you watch his new "Electric Glide" music video, LaDainian Tomlinson's footwork is as nifty as ever and his style is just as cool - except that his trademark tinted helmet visor has been replaced by sunglasses and he's wearing a white suit instead of the Chargers' iconic lightning-bolt jersey.
Time was when Tomlinson could have worn that suit onto a football field and not picked up a grass stain on one of those days when he was seeing all the holes and leaving tacklers grasping in his wake. But after rushing for 1,100-plus yards and receiving 50-plus passes for eight straight seasons, Tomlinson saw his numbers plunge to career lows this season: 730 yards rushing, 3.3 yards per carry and only 20 receptions.
If you listen to San Diego coach Norv Turner and quarterback Philip Rivers, statistics lie. Tomlinson missed two games early in the season with an ankle injury that slowed him even in the games he did play. But he hasn't been the focal point of the Chargers' offense at any point this season; he didn't rush for 100 yards in a single game, and he's almost an afterthought in the AFC divisional-round playoff game between the Jets and Chargers Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium.
"LT's really had an exceptional year," Turner said. "And I know some people get caught up in the numbers, but he had a high ankle sprain in the first week of the season, missed two games and was very, very limited. As he got healthy, he started putting up better numbers. He's had a number of games where he's had 55, 60 yards at halftime and only got three carries in the second half when we were ahead."
Rivers suggested Tomlinson might be saving his best for the postseason, which would be a change for him. In four playoff games in the previous two seasons, he carried 35 times for a total of 100 yards because he was limited by groin and knee injuries.
"It's been a while since that divisional game we lost to the Patriots [in 2006], the last time I was actually healthy in the playoffs," Tomlinson told San Diego reporters this past week. "So I'm excited about it. I get to turn it loose, and whatever happens happens."
Still, if you listed the biggest defensive problems the Jets will face, Tomlinson ranks behind Rivers, wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, tight end Antonio Gates and third-down back Darren Sproles. But you'll never get the Jets to admit that.
"I see the same dude who can move the chains," Jets defensive lineman Marques Douglas said. "He might not have the big runs, but their offense has changed to where he's not asked to do that anymore. When he's in there, he can give them third-and-2, and that's basically what they want. He still can see the holes.
"If you give them the run, they're going to take the run. We're playing the run first. With Sproles and LaDainian, you don't want to let them with two weeks' rest to get confidence they can run the ball. If we do, it's going to be a long day."
Tomlinson knows the Chargers' offense doesn't really start with him anymore, and some have suggested that the 30-year-old back's ninth season in San Diego might be his last.
Discussing the Jets' philosophy this past week, Tomlinson sounded almost envious.
"I think they're the best defense we're going to play," he said. "They've got the winning formula. They run the ball well and they play good defense. You look at teams throughout history that have done well, and those are the teams that had that winning formula."
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