Not all of the decline is due to Turner's philosophy; some comes down to injury. Early in the 2008 season left tackle Marcus McNeill missed two games and center Nick Hardwick missed three to injuries. This season Hardwick has been sidelined for eight games with a sprained left ankle, and rookie right guard Louis Vasquez missed a couple of games with a sprained knee.
But Tomlinson has had his struggles too. Scouts contend that he's lost some of the burst that helped him reach 11,000 rushing yards faster than every back in history except Eric Dickerson, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. And perhaps out of frustration, he sometimes appears so eager to hit the hole that he doesn't give his linemen time to get on their blocks.
Still, a successful running game is about attitude almost as much as ability, and the Chargers haven't been as committed to the ground game as they were under Schottenheimer, who against the Raiders once called a dozen straight power runs. Turner believes an offense should take what the defense gives rather than try to impose its will—which explains why Tomlinson carried the ball so often against Philadelphia. The Eagles were intent on taking away the downfield passing game from San Diego, which entered Sunday with 34 completions of 20 or more yards, tied for third in the league. Philadelphia's secondary was depleted during the week when cornerback Ellis Hobbs was lost to a season-ending neck injury and nickelback Joselio Hanson was handed a four-game league suspension for violating the policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Consequently defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who loves to blitz, backed off the pressure and protected against the big play.
"They're vertical in the passing game," McDermott says. "Normally my [approach] to them would be to stop the running game, but having faced Coach Turner several times over the years, he's a guy who likes to win throwing the ball."
Stopping that vertical passing game is no small challenge. Turner's receiving corps looks like a basketball front line: tall and talented. All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, who's 6'4", is averaging 13.6 yards per catch this year, the most since he became a full-time starter in 2004. Fifth-year wideout Vincent Jackson, 6'5", is emerging as one of the league's elite receivers and is on pace to significantly surpass his career highs of 59 receptions, 1,089 yards and seven touchdowns set last season. Malcolm Floyd, 6'5", broke into the starting lineup two games ago and is averaging 20.3 yards on 16 receptions. Dangerous third wideout Legedu Naanee, 6'2", scored his first career touchdown on Sunday.
But Turner believes he shouldn't rely too heavily on any single approach. While Tomlinson may not have the hyper burst that made him one of the game's greatest threats, he can still grind out yards when allowed to get in a rhythm—and get through creases, such as on his 20-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The play illustrated the importance of timing between the veteran back and his linemen. After Tomlinson took the handoff, he seemed likely to be dropped for a loss deep in the backfield, as defensive end Trent Cole came free off the left edge. But left guard Kris Dielman pulled and kicked out on Cole just before the defender got to the ball, and a fraction of a second later Tomlinson was past them and off toward the end zone. As he crossed the goal line, he leaped into the air, landed and squatted in front of a wall of cameras, feigning taking their picture before turning back toward the sideline.
Such moments are becoming rarer for Tomlinson. He battled a sprained left knee that forced him out of the AFC Championship Game in January 2008 after just a few snaps, then struggled with toe and groin injuries in 2008. Tomlinson has 46 100-yard rushing games in his career, but only eight of those have come under Turner, none in the last 15 games. "I think I'm still effective, and that's all that counts," he says. "I still find a way to help this team win."
Most defenses still open against San Diego with the idea of stopping the run—which has helped create passing lanes for Rivers because the safety is low in run support. While Tomlinson acknowledges his diminished role, he says the shift was made easier by the continued development of Rivers, who has thrown 50 TD passes since the start of the 2008 season. "It's always tough to accept something less than what you're used to," Tomlinson says. "But this is good for us. It helps the team, and it can help me, knowing I don't have to always get 20-something carries. But I'm still waiting for the time when I get 15 carries for 120. That's next."
In the meantime Tomlinson is counting his blessings. He has won rushing titles and a league MVP award, broken countless team and league records and is headed to the Hall of Fame when his career ends. He's set for life financially and has a beautiful and supportive wife. All that's missing from his wish list are children and a Super Bowl ring.
Could both arrive in the same year? Says Tomlinson, "God works in mysterious ways."