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Play on Words
IT'S UNCLEAR whether LaDainian Tomlinson was searching for answers or in need of a sounding board. But last week, after underachieving San Diego had slipped to 5--5 with a loss at Jacksonville, the All-Pro running back placed a call to Marty Schottenheimer, the coach who guided the Chargers to a league-best 14--2 record in 2006 only to be fired last February after butting heads with club president Dean Spanos over the makeup of the coaching staff.
Tomlinson and Schottenheimer won't reveal the content of their conversation, but last Friday (two days after they talked), Tomlinson stepped out of character and called a players-only meeting. According to teammates, the usually soft-spoken star was loud and clear in telling the players that they needed to decide whether they wanted to be winners or losers, and that it was time to stop second-guessing the new coaching staff and commit to it fully. "We need to put behind us all the talk about last year's team and last year's coaches," Tomlinson says he told the room. "They're not coming back. If we don't make this work, some of the guys on this team are going to be gone. It's our job to make it work.
"It was something I've been thinking about for a long time, and I just felt it was time to speak. A couple of guys like Lorenzo [Neal] said, 'Hey, T, you need to say something to the guys.' They were right."
In that meeting Tomlinson also asked teammates to look inside themselves and determine what sacrifices they were willing to make. Before anyone else in the room spoke up, he volunteered that he has not taken a drink since training camp started and plans to abstain until after the season. He says he has not had a problem with alcohol, but he believed a personal ban on booze might take his game and the Chargers, who are 0--3 in the playoffs since their only trip to the Super Bowl after the 1994 season, to a higher level.
"When you get a guy who's definitely going to the Hall of Fame, and you know he's a quiet guy, and he gets up in front of the team and makes a statement like he made—the guys who weren't buying in [to the new program] bought in," cornerback Quentin Jammer said on Sunday after San Diego dominated the Ravens in a 32--14 win at Qualcomm Stadium.
The players were smart to follow Tomlinson's lead because, according to a high-ranking team source, coach Norv Turner will return next season even if San Diego fails to make the playoffs. The organization had expected the coaching change to be seamless, but instead there was a mounting difference of opinion between players and coaches on whether the team's poor play was due to a lack of execution or suspect game-planning. Two weeks ago tight end Antonio Gates told The San Diego Union-Tribune that as many as 30% of the players weren't happy with Turner's play-calling. A week later linebacker Shawne Merriman went public with his belief that the coaches needed to get him more involved and do a better job of making in-game adjustments.
Then there was Tomlinson, a seven-year pro who just last season was the league's MVP after leading the NFL in rushing and scoring a record 31 touchdowns. Sitting in his customized SUV outside the team's training facility two days before the meeting, he told SI that in recent weeks he had wondered if his career was slipping away from him. The ground game was the foundation of the Chargers' success last season, but Turner arrived in San Diego with a plan to balance the offense and develop second-year starting quarterback Philip Rivers—who then proved unready for the added responsibility. Tomlinson entered the Ravens game with 192 rushing attempts, the second-lowest total of his career through 10 games, while Rivers threw late-game interceptions against Green Bay and Jacksonville that were major factors in those defeats.
When asked if putting more of a burden on Rivers was the best way to win a championship, Tomlinson said, "That's yet to be seen—but if it continues like this, it won't be.?.?.?. You go from last year, when you tasted [what it was like to be an elite team], when you were so close, to now not knowing if you're going to make the playoffs. It gets me questioning myself, like, O.K., when is it time for me to say I'm about done with football?"
But after Sunday's win there were smiles all around. Tomlinson matched his season high of 24 carries and became the 23rd player in league history to reach 10,000 yards rushing for his career. Rivers threw for 249 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Merriman got his first sack in five games. "Going forward, there are a lot of things we're going to have to do," says Tomlinson. "Everybody has got to sacrifice something."