CORTLAND, N.Y. — The menacing dark visor is still there, hiding LaDainian Tomlinson’s determined eyes.
The logo on the helmet is different these days, but the desire to be great remains.
For everyone who thinks he’s a shell of the player he once was, the New York Jets running back can’t wait to burst through the line and show that you’re wrong.
“I just want to prove that I’m not done,” Tomlinson said Tuesday. “I still can make plays and I’m still a valuable part of the team. That’s what it’s about and I’m eager to do that.”
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At 31, Tomlinson is on the downside of his career, but he and the Jets are convinced he can help them in their quest to win the Super Bowl.
“Oh, he’s still quick,” second-year running back Shonn Greene said. “He’s still got that quick step and he’s very versatile. He can do a lot of things, line up in the slot, outside. I think he still has it.”
That’s what the Jets were banking on when they signed him to a two-year deal in March. Granted, Tomlinson is coming off the worst season of his career after rushing for 730 yards and averaging 3.3 yards per carry for San Diego. He also struggled against the Jets in the playoffs when he had 24 yards on 12 carries.
“The thing, honestly, about Tomlinson is if he’s coming down, he’s coming down from the very top of the mountain,” coach Rex Ryan said. “It’s not like he was three-quarters of the way coming down.”
The 2006 MVP is eighth on the league’s career rushing list with 12,490 yards but was cut by San Diego in February. Once one of the NFL’s most dynamic players, Tomlinson is expected to back up Greene and do whatever he can to help an offense that ranked first in rushing a year ago.
“This is my first time going live in practice in all my years and I love that because it’s football, and you’re going to get hit,” he said, smiling. “The quicker you get acclimated to getting hit and being on the ground, it’s better for you when the games start.”
Tomlinson routinely would see limited action in the preseason with San Diego, not playing much — if at all — during games. He’d like that to change this summer.
“I want to play,” he said. “I want to be with the guys. Everybody else is going to play and I want to be a part of that.”
Tomlinson insists he has always been a good teammate, despite what some Chargers players might say. A few recently told the San Diego Union-Tribune that Tomlinson often wanted things his way.
“We all had a great relationship and I never put myself in position to be bigger than the team,” he said. “I mean, I never act like that. So, it was surprising, but, it is what it is and guys are going to feel differently and I’m moving on.”
That means he’s focused and committed to the Jets now, recharged and ready to go. Need proof? Look no further than Tomlinson’s right calf, which sports a Jets logo — matching the Chargers logo tattooed on his left calf.
When the team took its conditioning test Sunday, trainers advised Tomlinson not to take it because he tweaked a hamstring a few days earlier.
“I said, ‘Guys, listen: There’s no way my first day here I’m going to sit out and not run and take this test. I want to be with everybody else and do it,’ ” he said. “They asked me if I was sure, and I said, ‘Yeah, I know my body.’ ”
Sure enough, Tomlinson passed and has looked solid on the field through three practices.
“He had a bounce today,” Ryan said, “that I was like, ‘Wow!’ ”
Tomlinson acknowledged that it’s a bit surreal practicing with the Jets’ defense after playing against it for so many years.
“It’s kind of weird,” he said, grinning. “I’ve always said, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’ ”
One lasting image Jets fans might have of Tomlinson is when he made a vicious cut that froze Ty Law in his tracks in a game at the Meadowlands in 2005. Asked if he could still pull off one of those ankle-twisting plays, Tomlinson laughed.
“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” he said. “If you ask those guys, I think they’ll tell you that I’ve still got some of that in me.”