Commentary

Tomlinson making huge impact on Jets

The veteran running back is starring on the field, and has become a team leader off of it

Updated: September 25, 2010, 1:20 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets believe their eyes. They've seen what LaDainian Tomlinson can do, how this future Hall of Famer -- pronounced D.O.A. by critics on both coasts -- has made himself young again.

[+] EnlargeLaDainian Tomlinson
Jim Luzzi/Getty ImagesLaDainian Tomlinson has been outstanding in his first two games as a New York Jet.

They also believe their ears. They've heard him at his best and that, teammates and coaches say, is just as impressive as Tomlinson turning the corner on a "60 Zone" running play.

In a recent team meeting, Tomlinson asked to speak to the group. It surprised many because he's not a vocal player, but when an all-time great requests the floor, you hand him a microphone and let him go for as long as he wants.

Tomlinson spoke for several minutes to a rapt audience, but it wasn't the typical and tired "Time to step up" speech given by so many wannabe leaders. He came at them with Lombardi.

Displayed in his house is a framed copy of Vince Lombardi's famous motivational speech, "What it takes to be No. 1." Tomlinson's football doctrine is embodied in those words. He read the speech for maybe the 1,000th time, a refresher before he spoke to the team.

"I took notes from it, just some things I wanted to share with the team about what it really takes -- commitment, discipline, everybody buying in, everybody sticking together," Tomlinson said.

He blew away the room. Running backs coach Anthony Lynn said, "It was so powerful, the words he said and how he said them." It was an E.F. Hutton moment, and those don't happen too often on a team known for high-decibel levels and four-letter words.

Obviously, Tomlinson is a Lombardi fan, but as much as he admires the legendary coach's philosophy on life and football, his dream is to experience the ultimate Lombardi moment in early February.

"I want to hold that trophy at the end of the year," said Tomlinson, hoping the Jets have what it takes to be No. 1.

• • •

"Winning is not a sometime thing, it's an all-the-time thing. You don't win once in a while, you don't do things right once in a while. You do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing."
-- Vince Lombardi

• • •

Anthony Lynn isn't a big numbers guy. He knows stats can be misleading, especially for a running back. So when he was asked to evaluate Tomlinson as a possible replacement for Thomas Jones, he ignored the career-low 730 yards and horrible 3.3 yards-per-carry average last season with the San Diego Chargers.

He turned on the film and trusted his eyes.

[+] EnlargeLaDainian Tomlinson
AP Photo/Bill KostrounMany people thought Tomlinson was washed up, but he has revitalized his career in New York.

"I saw flashes of the old LT, the MVP LT," Lynn said.

He also saw "some inconsistency," but Lynn attributed that to a variety of factors -- an early-season ankle injury that never healed and a shift in offensive philosophy. The Chargers no longer were Tomlinson's team; it belonged to quarterback Philip Rivers.

Marty Ball was dead; the Chargers became a fast-break passing offense. Tomlinson became like Mike Myers' lead character in the "Austin Powers" movies, a star from a different generation trying to keep up in the modern world.

"They didn't use him the way I knew we'd use him," Lynn said.

The Jets use a ground-and-pound offense with a zone-blocking scheme that seems to have enhanced Tomlinson's cutback ability. In two games, he has rushed for a team-high 138 yards, with per-carry averages of 5.6 and 6.9 yards, respectively.

The last time he hit 5.6 or better in back-to-back games? You have to go back, back, back to 2007, the 14th and 15th games.

In running-back years, that's a lifetime ago. Tomlinson rushed for 1,474 yards that year, his last spectacular season. Since then, his production has steadily declined. That, coupled with his age (31), led to the obvious conclusion:

He's done. Finished. A useless antique.

But the thing about great running backs is they don't become great because they run fast and are strong. Those are the prerequisites; the intangibles -- heart and pride -- make them special. For the first time in his life, Tomlinson was being questioned. Heart and pride kicked in.

"All that talk about him being washed up, I think it really pissed him off," tackle Damien Woody said.

So Tomlinson reported to the Jets in fantastic shape, dazzled his teammates in the spring and took it to the games, providing a nice complement to Shonn Greene's inside running.

"He does carry a chip on his shoulder," Lynn said. "He does want to prove people wrong. He's heard all the whispers about being washed up and having nothing left in the tank. That's good. I want him to stay that way."

• • •

"Some guys play with their heads. That's OK … But more importantly, you've got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body. If you're lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he's never going to come off the field second."
-- Vince Lombardi

• • •

Tomlinson's signature play -- so far -- came late in the third quarter against the New England Patriots on Sunday. The call was "60 Zone," a basic off-tackle run to the right. He hit it hard, eluded Pats linebacker Rob Ninkovich in the slot and turned the corner. This is where a 31-year-old back is supposed to get dragged down, but he outran the pursuit -- a zero-to-60 mph moment.

"There's some equipment still on the field," cracked head coach Rex Ryan, alluding to the would-be tackler's jock strap.

Thirty-one yards later, Tomlinson was tackled by safety Patrick Chung, who took a can't-miss angle and stopped him at the 4-yard line. Suddenly, it was 2007, everybody chasing LT.

"Is he actually better than I thought he would be?" Ryan asked. "Yes, he is. I thought he was going to be outstanding, and he's better."

Tomlinson feels rejuvenated by the Jets, but here's the twist to the story: The Jets feel rejuvenated by him.

He's playing with the enthusiasm of a rookie, springing to his feet after big runs, banging his helmet and playing to the crowd. He's having fun, clean fun. This is a troubled team, tainted by off-the-field issues, that can learn from Tomlinson's example, on and off the field.

In training camp, Ryan and his assistant coaches lamented the lack of leadership on offense. With Jones gone, the offense lacks an emotional leader. Maybe Tomlinson, a Jet for only six months, is stepping into that role.

"He brings an energy to this team that I think was missing," Lynn said. "You have a lot of guys like that on defense, but you don't have a lot of guys like that on offense. It's good to see that."

Tomlinson plays like Lombardi spoke, with passion and conviction. He conveyed that in a quiet room, with 70-something players and coaches listening intently as a legend quoted a legend:

"I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle -- victorious."

Tomlinson longs for those days. Still.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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