LaDainian Tomlinson doesn't have a bigger fan in the San Diego Chargers' organization than team president and CEO Dean Spanos.
That is why, despite the questions that once surfaced about the running back's future in San Diego, the Chargers and Tomlinson were able to finally work out a restructuring of his contract that runs through 2011.
For Spanos, completing the deal was personal, which came through loud and clear in the following comment he issued through the team's public relations department Tuesday night: "It was important to me to get this done so LT could continue his career here in San Diego where he means so much to our team, our fans and our community. The alternative was just unthinkable. He belongs in San Diego."
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The perspective is understandable. But not everyone around the league with whom I've spoken about the transaction agrees that a parting of ways should be regarded as "unthinkable."
Certainly, Tomlinson is an iconic figure who has served the Chargers well as their most recognizable name and face. He has been the consummate good guy throughout his career, which only enhanced his tremendous achievements as a player.
But he's entering his ninth NFL season, which is overtime territory for a running back. On June 23, he turns 30, an age when the skills of even highly talented backs begin to take a noticeable slip. And, because of his age and all of those years of pounding, he has become injury-prone.
That has one coach from another NFL team questioning whether retaining Tomlinson was such a wise investment.
"He's a great player, don't get me wrong," said the coach, who requested anonymity. "But he's got a lot of injury problems."
The Chargers placed a franchise tag on Darren Sproles, who is a younger, healthier and more dynamic running back. Sproles is entering his fifth NFL season and turns 26 on June 20. He was a hero of the Chargers' postseason, and his ability to go the distance every time he touches the ball occupied more of the thoughts of the opposition than Tomlinson.
At least one coach, whose team faced the Chargers in 2008, said there was no question as to the bigger difference-maker between Sproles and Tomlinson.
"Sproles is more dangerous to me than the other guy," said the coach, who requested anonymity. "I was more concerned about Sproles than I was about Tomlinson. He's quick, explosive, and Tomlinson doesn't have that anymore. Sproles is much better and I guarantee he will be a greater factor next season."
According to sources close to the situation, the process of getting the restructuring completed was sometimes contentious, primarily because of a strained relationship between Chargers general manager A.J. Smith and Tomlinson's agent, Tom Condon. Earlier this month, it looked like a deal would not be achieved. But, sources said, Spanos intervened and played a key role in bringing both sides to a middle ground. The key was that Tomlinson would see no change in his 2009 salary of $6.725 million, but receive considerably less than the $17-plus million he was due over the final two years so the Chargers would have the cap space to address new contracts for quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates.
In a statement issued by the Chargers, Tomlinson went out of his way to praise Spanos' involvement in the talks, noting that he "made it work for everyone." To some around the league, there is suspicion of lingering hard feelings between Tomlinson's camp and Smith.
"I think (Spanos) probably told (Smith), 'Sign this guy,' " an NFL coach said. "There was a bitterness there, and now, if things don't go well (during the season), there's going to be that animosity there."