The Pro Football Hall of Fame will welcome its Class of 2017 on Aug. 5. This week, Shutdown Corner is highlighting the greatest moment for each member of the seven-man class, leading up to Saturday’s induction ceremony.
The run that broke the NFL’s single-season touchdown record looked doomed from the start.
But that’s what made LaDainian Tomlinson so good.
San Diego Chargers right tackle Shane Olivea didn’t get a hand on Denver Broncos defensive end Kenard Lang, who came just inches from blowing up the play in the backfield. The other offensive linemen did their jobs, though, so perhaps the play could be salvaged.
Then came Lorenzo Neal, the battering ram of a fullback who destroyed any would-be tackler in the hole, the under-appreciated hero in Tomlinson’s record-setting season. But on this play, he was wiped out by none other than a few blades of grass. After Neal slipped there was LaDainian Tomlinson, already with two touchdowns on the day, but certainly dead in the water, right? Tomlinson breaking the NFL record for touchdowns in a season would have to wait one more week, right?
“Well, we bounce it out and I trip,” Neal said in the oral history of the season on the Chargers’ website. “I’m falling and I’m thinking this is a bad dream. Are you kidding me? This can’t be happening! Oh my God, it was like slow motion.”
But that’s what made Tomlinson so good.
Without changing speeds, Tomlinson angled to his left, stiff-armed Denver cornerback Darrent Williams and then burst to the corner, nary a hand laid on him until he was into the end zone and into the record books. It was his 29th touchdown of the season, passing the record set by Priest Holmes in 2003 and Shaun Alexander in 2005. And it was only Week 14. Tomlinson would finish with 31 total.
And he made it look so easy.
Perhaps we should have seen it coming. The signs for a big season were there.
Before the 2006 season, the Chargers had named Marty Schottenheimer head coach, and Schottenheimer was determined to run the ball — and run the ball well. Former face-of-the-franchise quarterback Drew Brees was gone, having agreed to a deal with the New Orleans Saints. That left Philip Rivers, then just 24 years old, in charge of a team full of promise. And Tomlinson was already a star.
After four games, Tomlinson had just three touchdowns, but the team was 3-1. It was a good start for a talented team, but absolutely nothing from that start suggested LT was going to make history.
That moment came in Week 6. The Chargers headed north to San Francisco and clobbered the 49ers 48-19. Tomlinson had four touchdowns. “LT” chants rained down, even in a visiting stadium.
“I remember those touchdowns, but what meant the most was that the 49ers game is when we started to feel like we could dominate the league,” Tomlinson said in the Chargers oral history of the season. “That we were a special team that could beat anyone … That was a clear indication to everyone that at the end of that game, California was truly a Chargers state.”
The next week, Tomlinson scored just a single touchdown in a 30-27 loss to the Chiefs. Then the touchdowns started coming, and they didn’t stop: three scores against St. Louis and Cleveland, then four against Cincinnati (when the team came back from a 21-0 deficit) and Denver. Then came two more against Oakland and Buffalo, leading up to the historic second Broncos game. The Chargers were on a roll too. Rivers settled into his role with Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, Eric Parker, Keenan McCardell and a young Vincent Jackson emerging as key contributors in the passing game. They hadn’t lost a game since the aforementioned defeat against Kansas City, back in Week 7.
As everyone involved will admit, the focus wasn’t getting Tomlinson into the end zone three times against the Broncos. The focus was beating a division rival and continuing momentum. But when Shawne Merriman forced a late fumble and the Chargers were already up several scores, the focus turned to LT.
“Up until that point I never thought anything was supposed to happen that day, but at that point I thought to myself, ‘This is supposed to happen. We are supposed to break the record right here,'” Tomlinson said. “I didn’t say nothing. I walked in the huddle and Kris Dielman looked at me and said ‘Let’s get it.’ I looked at him and said, ‘OK, let’s go.'”
And go Tomlinson did. Past the defenders Neal had missed, and past the man he was responsible for making miss, too. And into the record books.
No one has come close to 31 rushing and receiving touchdowns in a season since. David Johnson netted 20 in his outstanding season last year, and he still was nowhere close. Randy Moss had 23 touchdowns in his historic 2007 season, and he still never threatened the record. And Tomlinson’s 28 rushing touchdowns, also a record, seems safe, too, with running back careers being shorter and NFL rules favoring passing.
The Chargers would finish the year 14-2 and 8-0 at home before losing a heartbreaker in their playoff opener. Tomlinson did more than his fair share, rushing for 123 yards and two touchdowns. But the dream ending for one of the most spectacular individual seasons ever wasn’t meant to be.
But for that one moment several weeks earlier, lifted onto his teammates’ shoulders, Tomlinson had been immortal. Untouchable. Unstoppable. And when he enters the Hall of Fame, that will be the Tomlinson that is remembered.
Previous “Greatest Moments” from the 2017 Hall of Fame class: