SAN DIEGO — The slashing, dazzling runs came less frequently. The yards didn’t pile up as easily as in previous seasons.
LaDainian Tomlinson was slowing down because of injuries and age, becoming less and less the face of the franchise as his role was reduced in a pass-happy offense.
On Monday, he 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. Tomlinson, one of the most beloved athletes in San Diego sports history, got the word in a meeting with team president Dean Spanos.
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“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.”
Tomlinson was due a $2 million roster bonus in early March, which all but guaranteed he would be cut loose. He still had two years left on his contract, which was reworked during a somewhat tumultuous period last offseason.
L.T. wasn’t immediately available for comment. He said after the Chargers’ playoff loss to the New York Jets that he felt he could still play for a few more seasons.
“He was one of the greatest players and people that I’ve ever had a chance to be around and he will be missed,” outside linebacker Shawne Merriman said in an e-mail to the AP.
General manager A.J. Smith called it “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, 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 carry, all career lows.
Agent Tom Condon doesn’t think Tomlinson is finished.
“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 ranks eighth on the all-time rushing list with 12,490 yards. His 138 career rushing touchdowns rank second, and his 153 total touchdowns rank third.
He was the NFL’s MVP in 2006, when he set league single-season records with 31 touchdowns, including 28 rushing, and 186 points.