The slashing, dazzling runs came less frequently. The yards didn't pile up as easily as they had in previous seasons.
LaDainian Tomlinson was slowing down because of injuries and age, and his role was reduced in a pass-happy offense.
On Monday, Tomlinson 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.
The move had been expected for some time. And Tomlinson, one of the most beloved athletes in San Diego sports history, officially received the word during a meeting with Chargers president Dean Spanos.
"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," 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 than later."
Spanos said Tomlinson "was very, very gracious and very respectful" during their meeting.
"He had his typical smile," Spanos said. "He was just as good as could be, as respectful as could be. Just really, like he is, first class."
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 attempt, all career lows. He was due a $2 million bonus in early March, which all but guaranteed he would be cut loose by the Chargers, even though he still had two years left on a contract that he reluctantly reworked last offseason.
"It was a longtime coming, but I knew it was coming," Tomlinson said in a telephone interview with 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 wants his next team to have a proven quarterback who can produce a Super Bowl championship.
"That's my No. 1 goal," Tomlinson said. "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."
Tomlinson's agent, Tom Condon, said he'll spend time at the NFL Scouting Combine this week in Indianapolis determining other teams' interest in his client.
Condon doesn't believe Tomlinson is finished playing in the NFL.
"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."
Tomlinson told SI.com that he probably would hold a news conference Wednesday to thank the Chargers and their fans.
"He was one of the greatest players and people that I've ever had a chance to be around, and he will be missed," Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman said in an e-mail to the AP.
Chargers general manager A.J. Smith called Monday "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."
Tomlinson ranks eighth on the NFL's all-time rushing list with 12,490 yards. His 138 career rushing touchdowns rank second, and his 153 total touchdowns rank third.
Tomlinson was the NFL's MVP in 2006, when he set league single-season records with 31 touchdowns, including 28 rushing, and 186 points. Tomlinson won the NFL's rushing title in 2006 and '07.
Perhaps Tomlinson's 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.
Tomlinson's linemen hoisted him onto their shoulders and carried him toward the sideline, with the running back holding the ball high in his right hand and waving his left index finger, while the fans chanted "L.T.! L.T.!" and "MVP! MVP!"
Remember L.T. as a Charger
Coming off a 1-15 finish in 2000 and trying to dig out from the nightmarish Ryan Leaf years, the Chargers held the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft. They sent that pick to the Atlanta Falcons on the day before the draft began for a package that included the fifth pick, which they used to select Tomlinson. The Falcons took quarterback Michael Vick with the top pick.
"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 running back never had a chance to win a Super Bowl in San Diego.
"We came close but just never quite got there," Spanos said.
"I was so excited for Drew, but at the same time, it made me even more hungry to win a championship," Tomlinson said. "I'd like to get things worked out early in free agency, but I want to take my time to make sure the next place is right for me."
Tomlinson's squeaky-clean image took a hit during that game. Forced out early with a knee injury, Tomlinson glumly watched from the sideline, huddled in a parka and his face hidden behind the tinted visor on his helmet.
The Chargers gave an overly optimistic prognosis about Tomlinson's injury, announcing that he "can return," which caused fans and commentators to question the running back toughness.
Tomlinson was always the most brutally honest employee in the Chargers' organization. When he sustained a groin injury during the 2008 regular-season finale, he was more forthright with the media about its severity, causing Smith to bristle.
That groin injury sidelined Tomlinson during a divisional-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the first time he missed a game because of injury during his pro career. He had been slowed earlier that season by a toe injury.
Tomlinson sprained his right ankle during the 2009 season opener against the Oakland Raiders and missed the next two games.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.