When the Jets signed free agent tailback LaDainian Tomlinson on March 14, 2010, the organization gained instant credibility.
Following nine historic seasons as the face of the San Diego Chargers franchise, the future hall of famer sought a change of scenery and started a new chapter of his career in New York.
Tomlinson’s health began to decline during his final two seasons in Chargers blue as nagging knee injuries hampered his play and curtailed San Diego’s Super Bowl dreams.
Oddly enough, No. 21’s last game with San Diego came against his future ballclub, as the Jets upended the heavily favored Chargers 17-14 in the 2009 AFC divisional round.
As speculation grew that Tomlinson would not return to the Chargers, Rex Ryan and the Jets front office wined and dined the star tailback wooing him with promises of a Super Bowl title.
Tomlinson agreed to a two-year, 5.2 million dollar contract, which was modest by most estimates in spite of his best years being behind him.
While NFL pundits argued that Tomlinson should hang up the cleats, the five-time pro bowler completed a rigorous offseason training regiment to reach peak physical performance.
Fueled by doubt and cynicism, Tomlinson amassed 435 rushing yards, 95 receiving yards and three touchdowns over his first five games in Green and White. The Jets were off to a 4-1 start behind Tomlinson’s brilliance, but his success was short-lived.
Over the next 10-games of the regular season Tomlinson failed to eclipse 57 yards on the ground in any game and found the end zone just three times over that span. Rex Ryan opted to rest Tomlinson during New York’s regular season finale as the team had already secured a playoff spot.
Even with Tomlinson’s production slipping the Jets finished the year at a record of 11-5 and traveled to Indianapolis to take on Peyton Manning and the Colts in the 2010 AFC wildcard round.
With a week off, Tomlinson had an extra pep in his step carrying the ball 16 times for 82 yards including two touchdowns as New York avenged its AFC Championship game loss from a season ago.
Fresh off the 17-16 upset over Indy, Tomlinson ran ten-times for 43 yards and a touchdown in New York’s 28-21 triumph over the top-seeded New England Patriots.
The Jets playoff run would come to a halt during the AFC title game in the Steel City as Pittsburgh rode a 24-0 halftime lead to a narrow 24-19 victory.
Trailing 24-17 with 7:44 remaining in their season, the Jets faced a critical 4th-and-1 from just outside the 1-yard line. Tomlinson took the handoff and leapt toward the end zone, but he was stymied by the combination of Casey Hampton and Brett Kiesel; denying New York the game-tying score.
With the book officially closed on the 2010 season, New York regrouped and set their sights on a Super Bowl berth that eluded them the previous two seasons. 2011 was a rollercoaster year for the Jets as they endured two separate three-game losing streaks en route to a middling 8-8 regular season.
Tomlinson was no longer the feature back as the Jets thrust third-year tailback Shonn Greene into the starting role. The Jets ranked 22nd overall as a rushing offense producing a shade above 105 yards per contest.
Tomlinson rushed just 75 times for 280 yards and only one touchdown. Gang Green utilized him as receiving option out of the backfield as Tomlinson hauled in 42 receptions for 449 yards and two touchdowns.
With the Jets plagued by locker room turmoil, New York missed out on the playoffs for the first time under head coach Rex Ryan. Tomlinson’s two-year contract expired without his Super Bowl promises being fulfilled.
Once again, Tomlinson is a free agent and his return to Green and White is in serious doubt. With his legacy as a hall-of-fame running back secured, it’s still unclear whether the star halfback will retire or make one final Super Bowl push.
If 2011 was the end of Tomlinson’s career as a New York Jet, it was certainly a miserable exit for one of the NFL’s living legends.
Rick Laughland covers the New York Jets for Greenandwhitereport.com
You can follow him on Twitter @rlaughland
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