SAN DIEGO -- The slashing, dazzling runs came less frequently. The yards didn't pile up as easily as in previous seasons.
LaDainian Tomlinson was slowing down because of injuries and age, becoming less and less the face of the franchise as his role was reduced in a pass-happy offense.
On Monday, he was released by the San Diego Chargers, a franchise he helped revive with a brilliant nine-year run in which he became one of the NFL's greatest running backs.
At age 30 and with declining numbers, Tomlinson has been anticipating his release for the past month.
"It was a long time coming, but I knew it was coming," Tomlinson said, according to SI.com. "Now that it's official I can kind of look to the next step in my career and playing football for someone else."
Tomlinson ranks eighth on the all-time rushing list with 12,490 yards. His 138 career rushing touchdowns rank second, and his 153 total touchdowns rank third.
He was the NFL's MVP in 2006, when he set single-season records with 31 touchdowns and 186 points. Tomlinson won the NFL's rushing title in 2006 and '07.
"I told him that in the 26 years that I've been in this
business, it was probably the hardest thing I've had to do," team
president Dean Spanos told The Associated Press. "I'm not close to
a lot of the players, but there's a handful that I've been close
with, and he's probably the closest. It was really difficult to
tell him. But out of respect, I wanted to tell him earlier rather
General manager A.J. Smith called it "a tough day, a sad day for everybody in the organization. But it's always tough to part ways with great players who helped you win games. It's not a pleasant day, but we're working through it."
"He was one of the greatest players and people that I've ever had a chance to be around and he will be missed," outside linebacker Shawne Merriman said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Tomlinson, who turned 30 last summer, was injured early in the 2009 season and finished with 730 yards on 223 carries for an average of 3.3 yards per carry, all career lows.
Perhaps his most memorable moment as a Charger came on Dec. 10, 2006, when he swept into the end zone late in a game against the Denver Broncos for his third touchdown of the afternoon to break Shaun Alexander's year-old record of 28 touchdowns in a single season.
His linemen hoisted him onto their shoulders and carried him toward the sideline, with Tomlinson holding the ball high in his right hand and waving his left index finger, while the fans chanted "LT! LT!" and "MVP! MVP!"
"What LT has meant to this town and to this team, in nine years, the impact he's had both on and off the field, we may never see that again," quarterback Philip Rivers said before accepting an award at a sports banquet Monday night. "You're not just going to replace LT himself. He was more than a running back."
The Tomlinson years were some of the best in Chargers history. Tomlinson established himself as a star during a rookie season in 2001 when he rushed for 1,236 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. His ability to run, make big plays and score touchdowns helped allow quarterbacks Drew Brees and Rivers to develop into Pro Bowl stars.
"When he came here in 2001, we were a struggling franchise,"
Spanos said. "It's clear that we are where we are today because of
him. He truly has been the heart and soul of our team all these
years, and just done an outstanding job and helped turn this
franchise around into a winning franchise. It couldn't have been
done without him."
Spanos said he and Tomlinson expressed disappointment that the
player never got a chance to win a Super Bowl title.
The Chargers made five playoff appearances during Tomlinson's
time here. They advanced to the AFC Championship Game following the
2007 season but lost to the New England Patriots.
"We came close but just never quite got there," Spanos said.
The Chargers reworked Tomlinson's contract last offseason to give him one more chance to re-establish himself as a top running back. He was scheduled to get a $2 million bonus in March and a $3 million base salary under the restructured contract. The Chargers will pay Tomlinson a $1 million bonus, guaranteed if the team released him.
"The main thing for me now is to try to win a championship," Tomlinson said to SI.com when asked about the future. "That's my No. 1 goal. That's why I still work hard and train like I do, because I still believe there's a chance of winning that championship. So the next team I go to has to have a chance of winning a title. I can think of a few teams off the top of my head, but that's what my agent is for. I'm sure he's going to do some research, talk to some teams and present some options to me."
Agent Tom Condon said he'll spend time at the forthcoming NFL combine in Indianapolis determining interest from other teams.
"I think they did us a favor in terms of releasing him before we go to the combine. That part of it was positive," Condon told the AP. "LT during Super Bowl week had indicated it was time to move on, and they accommodated him. He's had a Hall of Fame run there as a Charger."
Condon doesn't believe Tomlinson is finished.
"It's one of those things with the very, very special players, like Emmitt Smith, Marcus Allen, guys like that," Condon said. "You can't predict what they're going to do. They seem to defy the odds. He keeps himself in tremendous condition. I think he feels like he can go forward for several more years."
Spanos said Tomlinson "was very, very gracious and very
respectful" during their meeting.
"He had his typical smile. He
was just as good as could be, as respectful as could be," Spanos said. "Just
really, like he is, first class."
ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton, ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.