By Steve Silverman
(CBS) The news item was largely overlooked in Chicago, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been.
LaDainian Tomlinson retired from pro football, signing a one-day contract so he could leave the way he came in – wearing the uniform of the San Diego Chargers.
In recent years, Tomlinson was just a shell of what he had been. His final two seasons were as a hard-trying member of the New York Jets. He had nothing left in the tank in 2011 after serving the team as a valuable role player in 2010. Prior to that, he had endured a painful year in San Diego. His ninth year with the Chargers turned out to be his last for the team that drafted him in 2001.
What fans need to remember is the first seven years of his career. Tomlinson was a do-everything back. He was a brilliant and hard-nosed runner who had speed, quickness and a powerful punch. He was a glue-fingered receiver who could catch the ball on third downs and keep drives alive and he could also go downfield. He was a driven blocker who could knock down linebackers and defensive lineman. He could also throw the ball when asked.
If you think that sounds like a certain back who wore No. 34 for the beloved, you are correct. Tomlinson wanted to play like Walter Payton and he modeled his career after him.
I’m not saying he was better than Payton, but from 2001 through 2007, Tomlinson played the game at a level that few players ever reached. He played at such a high level that he deserves to be compared with Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and the great Payton.
Let’s look back at Tomlinson’s 2006 season. It was one of the greatest years any football player ever had. Tomlinson carried the ball 348 times for 1,815 yards and rushed for 28 touchdowns. Additionally, he caught 56 passes for 508 yards and 3 more touchdowns. No, he did not play the clarinet with the marching band at halftime, but he probably could have if he wanted to.
Fans may not have believed it at the time, but he was just a man made of flesh and blood. He was not Superman in powder blue. He would eventually slow down in 2008 and by 2009, he was nothing close to the player he had been in his prime.
Which brings us to Matt Forte. The Bears’ primary running back has been a good-to-excellent back through his first four years in the league. He is currently engaged in a nasty bit of gamesmanship with the team.
Forte wants to be paid like the elite backs in the league. The Bears are willing to franchise him and compensate him substantially, but they are not willing to give him the kind of long-term contract that Forte desperately wants.
Nobody would compare Forte’s first four years with Tomlinson’s first run through the league. One is a good and productive player who has given an honest effort on a game-in, game-out basis. The other is one of the game’s giants who will be celebrated in the Hall of Fame in just a few years.
But the future Hall of Famer had a rather rapid downturn after the eight-year mark. If Forte can have four more good years and then start to fade, his career would follow a similar pattern. He would never be at Tomlinson’s level, but his career arc would be similar.
Most running backs don’t have eight great years like Tomlinson did. That’s what the Bears are thinking. They don’t want to commit a long-term contract to Forte, even though he has been consistently productive in a Chicago uniform. They know that the end is coming. They don’t know exactly when, but they know that Forte won’t go on forever.
Forte, of course, is taking it personally. To him, it is the only way to look at it. The Bears, of course, are looking at it as a business decision. The only reason they would come off their decision and relent to a long-term deal is if they thought their attitude towards Forte was poisoning the rest of the team with its current group of players or potential free agents.
Running backs don’t last forever. Even the best running backs can see their productivity come to a decisive and sudden demise. That’s reality in the NFL and that’s why the team is drawing the line with Forte. It may seem “cheap” or “ungrateful” but it’s just the way business is done sometimes in the NFL.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.