EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In typical Rex Ryan fashion, the New York Jets' coach answered a question about LaDainian Tomlinson's impressive performance against the New England Patriots by assuming the wise-guy, we-showed-you demeanor that makes him the NFL's consummate lightning rod.
"I thought he was washed up," Ryan said, smirking with devilish delight.
At 31, Tomlinson might be old for a running back. He might have been unceremoniously dumped by the San Diego Chargers, the team with which he established himself as one of the greatest backs in NFL history. He might not be everything he was physically at the height of his career.
But, no, Tomlinson is not washed up. He isn't remotely close to the category in which so many of us are always quick to toss any running back on the wrong side of 30.
Tomlinson still shows tremendous burst in those short, choppy steps that have been carving through NFL defenses for a decade. He can still change directions in a blink and catapult for a game-sealing first down, as he did in going right on fourth-and-1 with 2:44 left in the Jets' 28-14 victory over the Patriots. He can still catch the ball as well as any receiver and effectively put his 5-foot-10, 215-pound frame in front of much larger blitzers.
"We knew, watching the film, that he's still got it," Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "He's great out of the backfield, made some great catches (against the Patriots). He's still a great finisher. We actually put him in on the fourth-down play because we knew that he could elevate and get over the top."
Tomlinson brings something else. He brings the poise of a 10-year veteran and a quiet type of leadership that a team like the Jets, who are loaded with big egos and big talkers (starting with their coach), needs. That is a particularly important quality when you consider the risk the Jets took by making what was described as a "financial" decision in saying good-bye to tough, hard-working Thomas Jones -- who led them in rushing last season -- and turned right around to make a significant free-agent investment in Tomlinson.
Veteran fullback Tony Richardson learned all he needed to know about how strong of an addition Tomlinson would be the day the Jets signed him. "I was looking for him," Richardson said. "Where did I find him? He was in the friggin' weight room working out."
It isn't an overstatement to say that, on top of his 76 yards on 11 carries (an average of nearly seven yards per rush) and four receptions for 26 yards, Tomlinson made one of the most vital contributions to the Jets' avoiding a potentially crushing 0-2 hole with his mere presence. After the bitter disappointment of their season-opening loss to the Baltimore Ravens, he did plenty to help keep things from unraveling. He reminded his younger teammates that the season is a marathon, not a sprint, and to not join the outside forces overreacting to the bad start.
Tomlinson also has demonstrated -- as clearly as anyone can in the Jets' locker room -- that actions speak so much louder than words. Talking trash about an opponent, or about the team that kicked him to the curb, is meaningless.
"That's been my approach all along, because you can't prove anything talking," Tomlinson said. "Boxers do a lot of talking before they get in the ring, but at some point it's you and the other man, so you've got to put up or shut up. And that was the same way with me. I didn't want to do a lot of talking. I wanted to actually show people what I can do."
When the Chargers said he couldn't help them anymore, we assumed it was pretty much over for L.T. When player-personnel evaluators and coaches around the league echoed those sentiments, we seemingly had no choice but to figure his tank was empty.
Former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer, Brian's father and one of Tomlinson's former coaches in San Diego, wasn't buying it.
"He still has his skills," the elder Schottenheimer said. "I wouldn't stand here and tell you that he can break one and run 60 yards down the field without some DB catching up. But he has such vision and his ability to find soft spots in the defense is very good. Like the first down he made (to seal the New England game), I don't know how many times I've seen him start to the right and go back up over the left to the top."
There was a reason for Tomlinson's pronounced struggles in his final two seasons with the Chargers. He wasn't up to snuff physically.
Since joining the Jets, he has been the picture of good health -- at least by the standards of a player subjected to years of NFL punishment.
"I think people really forget the last couple of years, I've gotten hurt the first game of the year and have been hurt, battling the whole year pretty much with injuries," Tomlinson said. "And now, I'm healthy again and I feel great. That's the key."
That and the chance to show the Chargers that they shouldn't have given up on him.
"He's got a lot to prove," Brian Schottenheimer said. "He's got a big chip on his shoulder."
They've got answers
» The Chicago Bears, because quarterback Jay Cutler is showing that he can overcome adversity, which came in the form of early punishment from the Dallas Cowboys' pass rush. He responded with a strong game and seems to be steadily growing comfortable in Mark Martz's offense.
They've got questions
» The New York Giants, because their offensive line is abysmal and won't likely improve any time in the foreseeable future.
» When is benching a quarterback within the first couple of weeks of the season a sign of panic and when is it a wise move?
The Tennessee Titans appear to have pushed the panic button by yanking Vince Young in favor of Kerry Collins. Wasn't this season all about building on the promise that Young showed toward the end of last year? And didn't he give some indication that he was headed in the right direction in Week 1? A poor showing vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense seems like something that could happen to the best of quarterbacks. Coach Jeff Fisher is going back to Young, but you wonder if there will be lingering damage to the QB's psyche.
The Oakland Raiders' benching of Jason Campbell seems to send all sorts of disturbing messages that the team is regretting the acquisition of the quarterback that was supposed to play a key role in the franchise's turn-around. Even if Bruce Gradkowski did perform better in allowing the Raiders to beat the St. Louis Rams, coach Tom Cable might very well have put himself in a position where he can't go back to Campbell, especially with him giving back-to-back poor showings.
The Carolina Panthers seemed to have little choice but to sit Matt Moore, who was a shaky pick to start from the beginning. However, putting rookie Jimmy Clausen in the No. 1 role this early could cause things to go from bad to worse for the Panthers. Clausen doesn't seem close to being ready to play this soon.
» A lot of us said the NFC North would be a two-team race, and we were right. We just didn't think the "other" team besides Green Bay would be Chicago.
» Broncos coach Josh McDaniels offered a familiar-sounding anecdote when he mentioned to reporters that his celebration of his team's big win against Seattle lasted until he was sitting in front of his TV and watching the Colts pulling away from the Giants in the second quarter Sunday. In January, Colts coach Jim Caldwell shared a similar story about how a celebratory family dinner after his team's victory against the Jets in the AFC Championship Game became a little less enjoyable as he began watching the NFC title game between New Orleans and Minnesota.
» The New Meadowlands Stadium has a creative setup for the home team coach's postgame news conference that you don't find in other NFL stadiums. It takes place in the Coach's Club seating area for fans, and essentially is a glass enclosed square that allows them to see and hear the coach answer questions from reporters. Given that there are gaps in the glass walls, fans can be heard cheering (and, depending on the circumstances, jeering). After the New England game, Ryan heard plenty of cheers and even acknowledged one of the many positive comments from the fans. However, after the loss to the Ravens, some fans could be heard, loud and clear, making unkind references to Ryan's round physique.
Four intriguing matchups for Week 3
Green Bay at Chicago: Finally, a little life has been injected into the NFL's oldest rivalry. It will be interesting to see which quarterback, the Packers' Aaron Rodgers or the Bears' Jay Cutler, can stand up to the ultra-strong pass rush that each team can deliver.
N.Y. Jets at Miami: It will be interesting to see if Mark Sanchez's rebound performance Sunday is the beginning of an actual trend or merely a case of benefitting from facing an inexperienced secondary. A second successive big game, vs. a defense as strong as Miami's, would make a little bit of a statement.
Dallas at Houston: It isn't too early to call this a must-win for the Cowboys. Heck, that ship sailed during the loss to the Bears. Texans quarterback Matt Schaub has taken the early lead for NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
» Follow me on Twitter @viccarucci.