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L.T. could be a factor for a Super Bowl contender

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LaDainian Tomlinson will play football again. But wherever he lands, don't expect him to be the missing piece to maybe get you to football's Holy Grail. If Tomlinson's next team gets to the Super Bowl, he will be a part, not the reason.

That team is probably already good before it gets him and, odds are, they've got a quarterback -- like Brett Favre or Drew Brees or Peyton Manning -- who's the reason why they're championship worthy.

Not to demean L.T. He is the best running back of the modern generation and one of the nicest, most gracious, classiest guys you'll ever encounter. He was the total package. But the Chargers wouldn't have bagged him if he still was the difference maker. He meant too much to that franchise and that city to make his release on Monday something trivial. Tomlinson could even rate higher than Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow in San Diego. He's clearly the most beloved running back to ever play for the Bolts (apologies to Natrone Means and Chuck Muncie).

There is widespread hope across the league that Tomlinson will get a Super Bowl ring. It's a shame it didn't come with the Chargers. This seemed to be the year, too, after San Diego streaked into the playoffs with 11 straight wins and another AFC West title.

San Diego was two games from getting to the Super Bowl with Tomlinson, but it lost to the Jets, who started a rookie quarterback and had two running backs (Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene) that were more productive than L.T. (In fact, San Diego's leading rusher in the loss was Darren Sproles.) It's the painful and natural order of things, especially for a running back in the NFL.

Ask Emmitt Smith, O.J. Simpson, Edgerrin James, Fred Taylor, Marcus Allen, and Shaun Alexander. They tried to keep the magic going in other uniforms, but it didn't work. It rarely does for guys who get beat up carrying the ball.

Yes, running backs get the glory. But they also get the most pounding -- more than any player on the field. If they're not carrying the ball, they are blocking for someone who is or taking on blitzers in pass protection. The pounding adds up, as it has on the 30-year-old Tomlinson. The legs that provided us with so many long runs and explosive bursts into the end zone have been battered and injured to where he could muster only 3.3 yards a carry last season.

Watching Tomlinson fail to shift into a higher gear that previously allowed him to turn three yards into 15 was like watching Michael Jordan, at age 39, flat-line on the rim he used to soar two feet above.

Paul Spinelli / Associated Press
LaDainian Tomlinson is among four of the NFL's top 10 all-time leading rushers to have played for one team -- although that fact likely will change this offseason after the Chargers released him.
Top 10 all-time rushers in NFL history
Player Rushing Yards Teams
1. Emmitt Smith 18,355 Cowboys, Cardinals
2. Walter Payton 16,726 Bears
3. Barry Sanders 15,269 Lions
4. Curtis Martin 14,101 Patriots, Jets
5. Jerome Bettis 13,662 Rams, Steelers
6. Eric Dickerson 13,259 Rams, Colts, Raiders, Falcons
7. Tony Dorsett 12,739 Cowboys, Broncos
8. LaDainian Tomlinson 12,490 Chargers
9. Jim Brown 12,312 Browns
10. Marshall Faulk 12,279 Colts, Rams

Players at other positions can manage the wear and tear that comes with age a little more effectively. Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who will go into the Hall of Fame as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, could get a Super Bowl ring with Atlanta -- ironically, alongside the running back (Michael Turner) San Diego gave up on to retain Tomlinson. Favre could win a Super Bowl at age 41 with Minnesota. But Gonzo and Favre are the rare ones. They haven't taken the beating that Tomlinson and Emmitt and all those guys took over the years.

With all that said, Tomlinson isn't done. Whoever signs him is getting a high-caliber human, as well as a player who can still add value as a piece of the puzzle. Not the final piece, but a piece.

The Minnesota Vikings could lose Adrian Peterson's backup, Chester Taylor, to free agency. Believe it or not, Taylor could have more suitors than L.T. because he has less worn tread. If Tomlinson is willing to play for a smaller paycheck, he would be an ideal fit behind Peterson, adding one more smart, veteran into the locker room of a team poised to make another run at the Super Bowl. The champion Saints could pass on bringing back Mike Bell, and Tomlinson could be reunited with quarterback Drew Brees, making him a nice complement to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush.

The Texans are a talented, youthful team that could use a running back with some veteran savvy. Tomlinson could be a soothing element for Vince Young in Tennessee. Adding Tomlinson to a backfield with Frank Gore in San Francisco or to Cedric Benson in Cincinnati's plodding running attack seemingly would work, too.

There is a place for Tomlinson. And now that he's been expectedly released from San Diego, he'll feel reborn. Pride will get him some places his worn legs might not want to go at times.

As sad a day as it is for the Chargers, it's also one of rebirth for the team. The separation from Tomlinson has been in the works for quite some time. Having him around, knowing they could be better off with a younger, more explosive running back to offset Sproles, was an albatross they had to work through. Everyone knew where things were with the Chargers and Tomlinson, but sentiment is a tough emotion to tread.

The great teams, as bad as it hurts, tend to know when to part ways before it's a year too late. As much heat as Bill Belichick and the Patriots have taken for bouncing some beloved veterans like Drew Bledsoe, Lawyer Milloy or Tedy Bruschi, their timing is almost always correct. Rarely have players come back to haunt them. Some will say the Chargers waited too long with Tomlinson, but they did finish 13-3 with him. It's hard to say they made a mistake.

Today, Tomlinson's release will hurt. But by the time the draft comes in April, those feelings will be smoothed over. And if the new guy steps in and plays well, like so many rookies have right away these past few years, everything will be good -- especially if the Chargers finally reach the Super Bowl.

Tomlinson would still be remembered as part of that team, because he helped make it. Maybe the Chargers will give him an honorary Super Bowl ring like the Colts gave to James a year after he bolted in free agency to Arizona. If the Chargers fall off, Tomlinson's legacy will appear even greater.

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