AFTER THE Chargers fell to the Falcons on Sunday, their third straight defeat and fifth in six games, San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson stood next to his black SUV in the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot and pondered something even more unfathomable than the team's collapse: playing for another team next year.
"Right now I feel messed up because we're not winning," said Tomlinson, who has spent his entire eight-year career with the Chargers. "I'm trying to search for how we can fix it. So I can't say anything about my future right now. It wouldn't make sense. It's not the right time, and it's not fair to the rest of my teammates for me to come out and talk about me leaving this team. It just wouldn't be right."
The fact that he has been underused—his projected season rushing totals of 289 carries, 1,058 yards and eight touchdowns would be career lows—is one reason for the frustration Tomlinson shares with other veterans on a team that came up one game short of the Super Bowl last year and had 20 of 22 starters returning.
Any discussion of San Diego's struggles begins with second-year coach Norv Turner, who did not succeed in Washington or Oakland and appears to be losing credibility with his third team. In a recent interview, Pro Bowl special-teamer Kassim Osgood dodged a TV reporter's question several times when asked if Turner, who has a 73-95-1 career record, is a good head coach. Each time Osgood praised Turner as an offensive coordinator but did not address his abilities as a leader. Turner angrily called out Osgood in a team meeting, according to players in the room, without allowing Osgood a chance to reply. (Turner declined comment when approached by SI.)
Although Turner made his name in the NFL as an offensive coordinator, his recent play-calling has been debated in light of the team's scoring 20 points or less in six of its last eight games. Turner's game management has also been suspect. Against Indianapolis two Sundays ago, he burned a timeout after San Diego was stopped short on third down in the final two minutes of a tie game, providing Peyton Manning with an extra 30-plus seconds to drive for the winning field goal. Facing Atlanta last week, Turner called for a two-point-conversion attempt early in the third quarter with the Falcons leading 15--13. It failed, and when Atlanta scored a TD on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Chargers had a two-possession deficit they could not overcome.
There has also been concern that general manager A.J. Smith underestimated the value of veteran leadership (Lorenzo Neal, Keenan McCardell, Roman Oben and Donnie Edwards were cut loose) and overestimated the abilities of some young players, locking up too many with long-term deals. "We don't have a lot of guys whose voices get people's attention and make them listen," said one player.
Tomlinson is in the fifth season of an eight-year contract and still hopes to retire as a Charger. It isn't in his makeup to quit on the team or become a distraction in a bid to force a trade, but he can't help but question his diminished and uncertain role. The offense used to run through him, but Turner has gradually placed more responsibility on quarterback Philip Rivers. Balance is one thing, but every good team has plays it can run successfully even if the opponent knows they're coming.
For the Chargers under Turner's predecessor, Marty Schottenheimer, those plays were power runs. Under Turner, no one is sure.
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Jim Trotter's Inside the NFL.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
COOLED OFF Tomlinson (left, and inset) is on track for his least productive season.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
[See caption above]