Tomlinson Clutch; True to his word

<b>Cleveland-</b> If there was any doubt before this game, let it be put to rest. This is LaDainian Tomlinson's team. Week in and week out Tomlinson shares his emotions off the field and when it comes time to play, he puts it all on the line. He, more than anyone, was tired of losing. He, more than anyone, could lift this San Diego Chargers team on his shoulders and power them to victory as he did on Sunday. This is his team.

LaDainian Tomlinson averaged 7.7 yards per carry behind a rebuilt offensive line. An offensive line that had previously lost right tackle Vaughn Parker earlier in the season and lost starting center Jason Ball during the game to an ankle injury.

Tomlinson is averaging 5.7 yards per carry on the season. On a team that has been largely ineffective in the passing game it is nothing short of a miracle. Drew Brees had just 74 yards passing on the day, if that gives you any indication of just how much he means to this team.

Still, to this day, Tomlinson can't believe they entered today's play at 0-5.

"It does seem amazing," said Tomlinson. "This is a good team. I think we are finally starting to learn how to play. With the young guys that we have, and people in different positions, we are finally learning how to play and finish the game."

On the final Chargers drive, with the team needing at least one first down to wind the clock down, the Bolts fed the ball to Tomlinson and he delivered. It cost the Browns all three timeouts they had and left the clock at :25 seconds when the Browns got the ball back.

That is the kind of play fans have come to expect from Tomlinson. Before the game, he was certain the Chargers would win and came out publicly to state it. He was not afraid that his words would not be backed up.

It was reminiscent of a Joe Namath guarantee. Joe Namath was the MVP, hitting 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards, in his 16-7 Super Bowl victory over the Baltimore Colts.

There was even a little Mark Messier "We will win tonight" mixed in. In 1994, Messier heaved the ailing New York Rangers on his shoulders with the team down 2-0 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Devils. He assisted on the first goal for the Rangers and went on to score three goals, a hat trick in the third period to give the team a 4-2 victory. The Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup and end a 54 year drought without a Championship.

The great ones call their own shots.

"For some reason, I felt strongly that we were going to get the win," said Tomlinson. "Being off for a week, I felt really concentrated and focused after having a chance to look around the league. I had a chance to see what was going on and a chance to get away from the game for a bit. I just had a feeling that we were going to put it together and the losing was going to be over."

He felt they were going to win and did everything in his power to make it happen:
-- 200 yards rushing on the day on 26 carries.
-- Three receptions for 21 yards.

He was the offense. In fact, he was 73% of the offense on the day. 221 of 302 yards on the day went through the able hands of Tomlinson. A 70 yard run provided just one of the highlights.

"I saw the cornerback coming in, and when I cut up the field, it was just about breaking tackles," Tomlinson said. "Then, it was off to the races. I looked up at the scoreboard and saw there was nobody close to me."

Despite constant attempts, mainly by special teams, to give Cleveland a chance, it was Tomlinson who punched the Browns in the gut when he ran up the middle, to the kidneys when he ran outside and just when the Browns were getting back up, he made sure to stamp his feet over their backs.

The great ones also are prone to getting frustrated when the ball does not go their way. Case and point: the Chargers, up by three late in the game, are driving. They get to the one-yard line, mostly due to the 62 yards Tomlinson racked up on the drive. It is third and one and the Chargers decide to pass the ball. Brees is sacked for a 13-yard loss and they have to settle for a field goal. A touchdown by Cleveland would now put them ahead by one. Tomlinson felt he should have gotten the ball there to put the game out of reach.

"I was just frustrated in the heat of the battle. I wanted to score that touchdown and knew that if we scored that touchdown, it was over. It worked out for us. I understand where our offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was coming from. He said they [Browns] were expecting us to run the ball, and if we did the fake inside, the defense would be drawn in and we would have an easy touchdown pass. I would not say I did not like the call. If we would have scored, I would have really liked the call. It would have been great. At the time, we did not score and I was very frustrated. I felt like we missed our opportunity."

A true leader wears his heart on his sleeve. His work off the field spurs teammates on and in crunch time they look to him to make the big play. Tomlinson is each of those and when the game is on the line, he wants the rock.

"Any player wants to have the ball in their hands at crucial parts of the game," said Tomlinson. "That is just part of being a football player. You want (your teammates) to depend on you. When they do, you need to come up with the plays. You need to do something to back up what you are saying out there."

And back it up he did. The Chargers have their first victory of the season thanks to LaDainian Tomlinson.

Chargers fans are seeing the legend firsthand. These are the moments to remember. Just like last season in Oakland, he has come through again. One day, Tomlinson will come through in a much bigger way and lead this team to the greater glory. Why? Because he is not afraid to say what is on his mind and is willing to back it up on the field.

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net

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