Don’t look now, but here comes LaDainian Tomlinson.
And he’s got help. Lots of it.
Time was when the Raiders and everyone else could pretty much focus on the NFL’s top running back and still be helpless in his wake.
Then came last season, Tomlinson broke 2,500 carries, was a few months from age 30, and the whispers began.
Tomlinson had fewer than 300 carries (292) for the first time in his career. He gained 1,110 yards, the lowest single-season total of his career. The only time Tomlinson had a lower yards-per-carry and fewer touchdowns was in his rookie season.
The Chargers franchised running back Darren Sproles, making it seem as if the Chargers were preparing for an old L.T., rather than the L.T. of old.
The company line in San Diego is that Tomlinson is bent on proving everyone that last year’s off-year was because of a nagging toe injury and had nothing to do with the wear-and-tear of being an NFL runner.
We’ll find out soon enough, because the Raiders have been Tomlinson’s personal playground. He’s played the equivalent of a 16-game season Oakland and has 1,906 yards rushing, 19 touchdowns on the ground, has averaged 4.7 yards per carry. More than six percent of his career rushing yardage has come against the Raiders.
“I don’t necessarily go into the game thinking I’m going to have a big game,” Tomlinson told Bay Area reporters by conference call Thursday afternoon. “I just go into the gamne and take what they give me a lot of times.”
And before you break in with, “sure, they’ve given him an awful lot,” Tomlinson adds, “I will say, the last few times they have actually played us really well agianst the run.”
True enough. In the last three games agianst the Raiders, Tomlinson has 253 yards on 61 carries, a 4.1 average. The only time Tomlinson broke 100 in those games was in the first meeting between the two teams last year, and he needed a late 41-yard dash in a 28-18 come-from-behind win to get him to 106 yards on 20 carries.
The Chargers won all three games and have won 11 in a row. No team has ever won more consecutive games against the Raiders.
Tomlinson believes he’s still capable of a huge season, but is most happy about being pain free to start the season.
“I’m certainly not thinking of a season like last year. Just having the chance to be healthy again is what I’m most grateful for,” Tomlinson said. “At the same time, I’m happy to be on a team that has a shot of winning a champoinship with so many weapon. I don’t have to do what I did earlier in my career and run the ball so much. Everything centered around me and we relied on me and that running game. Now we can spread the wealth around.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers gives the Chargers the only playoff-level quarterback in the AFC West, and Norv Turner’s offense utilizes Sproles as a spot back and in the screen game to go along with tight end Antonio Gates and emerging wideout Vincent Jackson. Jackson burned the Raiders for five catches, 148 yards and a touchdown in the second meeting with the Raiders last season, a 34-7 win by San Diego.
Turner said San Diego’s ability to pass the ball made it easier to run toward the second half of last year, but believes that if necessary, Tomlinson could carry the ball 30 times, a figure he’s exceeded five times against the Raiders.
“I’m not sure you’d want him to do that week in and week out like he’s done in the past, but I think there’s going to be times when he’s going to have to carry the load and times hwen people load up in there and we do what we can to take advantage of it,” Turner said.
More from the Tomlinson and Turner conference calls:
— Tomlinson thinks Richard Seymour could make an immediate impact if he were to report to Oakland and play against the Chargers.
“He’s a pro. he knows how to play fooball and he knows how to turn it on when it’s time to turn it on,” Tomlinson said. “I think he could absolutely have an effect on the game.”
Turner didn’t sound so sure.
“He’s an outstanding football player . . . I think you find a spot, whether it’s rushing on third down, whatever that might be,” Turner said. “Certainly it’s hard to fit a guy in and get him going in a short period of time.”
— Turner can see a difference in JaMarcus Russell that comes from experience as much as it does the coaching of Paul Hackett and Ted Tollner.
“It’s from playing. People talk about Philip (Rivers), you look at him from two years ago and now he’s more sudden, mnore compact, his feet underneath him, he’s quicker,” Turner said. “Those are the things you see in JaMarcus. You can see they have a plan in terms of what they’re trying to get done with him, his feet are underneath him,and he’s getting the bal out quicker.
“Everyone wants to attribute that to a guy, it’s part of playing in the league and getting used to the league.”
— Regarding outside linebacker Shawne Merriman and his Tila Tequila legal troubles, Turner said, “there’s a legal process that has to take its course.” He said the Chargers have not heard from Commissioner Roger Goodell.
— What has made the Raiders better against the run the last three times out against Tomlinson?
“The guys that got up front. they got Kelly and Gerard Warren, those guys gave us some trouble. Kirk (Morrison) running around and Thomas (Howard) running around, their speed has really caused us a little trouble and allowed them to make some plays.”
— Tomlinson, a rookie in 2001, was mindful of the fact he lost four of his first five games to the Raiders.
“We play them twice a year. You guys talk about 11 straight times. I remember when they were kicking our butts all the time,” he said.
Will check in following Raiders open locker room session this evening and again following practice. Coach Tom Cable isn’t expected to address the media until after 9:15 p.m.