During a somber halftime in the San Diego Chargers' locker room yesterday, offensive linemen Kris Dielman and Shane Olivea approached their star running back out of mutual concern. LaDainian Tomlinson had rarely looked like himself during the first 30 minutes, and Dielman and Olivea decided it was time for an intervention.
"We were like, 'What's going wrong?' " Olivea said. "We really didn't know. Were there any holes? Were we doing something wrong in our blocking? Basically, it was just, 'L.T., are you okay?' "
At the time, Tomlinson just shrugged. Then he spent the next two hours delivering an emphatic answer.
In what his teammates later called one of Tomlinson's signature performances, the running back overcame a sluggish first half to rush for three touchdowns and 184 yards on 25 carries. His best two runs -- one long touchdown that tied the game late in the fourth quarter; another that won it in overtime -- propelled the Chargers to their come-from-behind, 23-17 win over the Redskins.
"When he gets going, there's a penetrating power about his inside running that a lot of people don't recognize," San Diego Coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "You see it and you just marvel. It's amazing what he can do.
"I've said it before, but now I'll say it again: I believe, with a certainty, that he is the finest running back I've ever seen in professional football."
At halftime, though, Dielman and Olivea sized up a player who'd been reduced, at best, to average. Against a swarming Washington defense that focused primarily on him, Tomlinson managed just 37 yards in the first half -- and it could have been considerably less. He sometimes grabbed the handoff with Redskins defenders already in the backfield.
"We knew they were a great defense," Tomlinson said, "and they weren't giving me anything."
The transformation that happened after halftime surprised even the San Diego players who wished for it most ardently. The Chargers made few halftime adjustments, players said, and San Diego quarterback Drew Brees (22 for 44, three interceptions) hardly distracted Washington from defending the run.
Only Tomlinson, players said, deserved credit for his own sudden success. He enjoyed running room for the first time late in the third quarter, when he spun at the line of scrimmage and broke free for an 18-yard scamper that foreshadowed his heroics.
"When a game gets going and L.T. hasn't done anything big, you always know it's coming," Olivea said after the game. "He keeps banging over and over, and he's too good not to get through eventually."
Said Dielman, standing nearby, "Yeah, he'll always break lose."
The inevitable, then, happened with 3 minutes 37 seconds left in the game. Tomlinson took a handoff around the left end and sprinted 32 yards to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown that tied the score at 17 and forced overtime.
But Tomlinson didn't need overtime; he needed just one more play. After Brees threw a 24-yard pass to Antonio Gates on the first play of overtime, the Chargers handed the ball to Tomlinson at the Washington 41. The running back broke through a big hole at the line of scrimmage, then shook off a diving tackle from strong safety Ryan Clark. He celebrated the rest of the way to the end zone.
"The hole was wide open," Tomlinson said. "It was just me and the safety, and I was thinking, 'There's no way I'm going down now. We need this.'
"Man, it was such an awesome feeling. I looked up at the jumbo screen, and with the thrill of coming back like we did, it was incredible. We proved a lot."
After the game, Chargers players focused more on what Tomlinson had proved. With 184 yards yesterday, Tomlinson built his season total to 1,086. He has surpassed 1,000 yards in all five of his NFL seasons, often doing it so easily that he no longer considers that mark to be a milestone, he said.
"He's obviously a great running back, but it goes beyond that," right guard Mike Goff said. "He's the kind of player that you can never shut down. You might get him for a quarter or a half, but you never stop him for a whole game."