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When LaDainian Tomlinson arrived at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium before Sunday's game against Philadelphia, the Chargers' running back had a package waiting at his locker from his wife, LaTorsha. The instructions on it were to open immediately, so Tomlinson parted the top of the cardboard box and found a pregnancy test amid the colored tissue paper tucked into a purple bag. WE'RE HAVING A BABY! read the note from LaTorsha, who had found out that she's expecting the couple's first child.
Tomlinson was so visibly choked up that teammate Darren Sproles came over and gave him a hug, but the ninth-year back used the news as added motivation once the game started. He set or tied his season highs in carries (24), rushing yards (96) and scores (two) while moving into sole possession of third place on the NFL's alltime touchdown list, with 146. Tomlinson also climbed to 12th place in career rushing yards with 12,145 as San Diego won its fourth in a row, setting up an AFC West showdown against the Broncos this Sunday in Denver. Both teams are 6--3.
It was the first time in weeks that the Chargers' ground game had shown any life—San Diego ranks last in the NFL in rushing—but as warm and fuzzy as the LT story line was, the cold, hard fact is that the Bolts' offense no longer runs through number 21, who was one of the game's dominant backs through his first seven seasons, a stretch in which San Diego ranked in the top 10 in rushing in all but his rookie year. This team now goes as quarterback Philip Rivers goes, something Tomlinson accepted only grudgingly last year but now embraces.
"If the train is moving one way, there's no sense in trying to hold it back and take it the other direction," Tomlinson said late Sunday afternoon, standing in a narrow hallway just yards from the spot where in 2006 he scored his 29th touchdown of the season to break the NFL record. "If I was going to talk about being a team guy, I had to walk the walk."
Age and injuries have slowed Tomlinson over the past two years. In June he turned 30, and now he says he realizes that the maturation of the passing game can keep him fresher and make him more effective by lightening his workload.
The Chargers so respect their future Hall of Fame back that Rivers and coach Norv Turner choose their words carefully when discussing the evolution of the offense. Still, one look at San Diego's final drive on Sunday says categorically what the quarterback and coach will not.
After the Eagles cut a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit to 28--23 with 7:12 to play, Turner put the ball in Rivers's hot right hand. The sixth-year pro, who ranks in the top 10 in most major passing categories this season, had a completion for 10 yards on second-and-five; for 17 on third-and-six; and for 18 on third-and-two. Overall on the drive he was 5 for 6 for 54 yards, and the Chargers controlled the ball for nearly seven minutes before Nate Kaeding kicked a 29-yard field goal with 30 seconds left in the game.
"Big plays," Turner acknowledged later. "We truly do want to be a complete offense, but we also know that based on the trend in this league and the pressure defense and the zone blitz defense, [opponents] can stop the run if they want to."
When Turner interviewed for his job after Marty Schottenheimer was fired in February 2007, he stressed the need to develop Rivers, the No. 4 overall pick in 2004, who was entering his second season as a starter after sitting behind Drew Brees for two years. Turner believed the offense needed more balance after having been one of the most heavily run-oriented attacks in the league under his predecessor.
Indeed, over the last three seasons San Diego's running and passing games have moved in dramatically different directions. The Chargers have gone from 32.6 rushing attempts per game in 2006 (second most in the league) to 23.3 this season (28th). The run game's productivity has dropped by more than half over that span, from 161.1 yards per game (also second) to a dead-last 75.1 in '09.