December 17, 2009

2006: LaDainian Tomlinson Sets Season TD and Scoring Records

The NFL record for touchdowns in a season had been moving up steadily since 1995 when Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys broke John Riggins’ 12-year old mark by scoring 25. Five years later, Marshall Faulk of the Rams made it 26; in 2003 it was Kansas City’s Priest Holmes scoring 27; and that lasted just two years, when Shaun Alexander of Seattle reached the end zone 28 times in 2005. His record, in turn, was surpassed the next season.

LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers quickly established himself as an elite running back from the time he entered the league as a rookie first round draft pick out of TCU in 2001. By the 2006 season, he had never been below 1236 rushing yards in a season, nor had he caught fewer than 51 passes. He had also reached double figures in touchdowns every season and led the NFL with 17 rushing TDs in 2004.

The 2006 season would prove to be Tomlinson’s greatest, both in terms of ground gaining and scoring. After 12 games, he had already accumulated 26 touchdowns. In the 13th game, he crossed the goal line three times to pass Alexander and establish a new record. On December 17, at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, he not only extended the new mark to 31, but also broke the record for points in a season of 176 that had been set by Green Bay’s Paul Hornung 46 years previously, in 1960.

Tomlinson wasted no time scoring his 30th touchdown and breaking Hornung’s record, running for a 15-yard TD on San Diego’s first possession. That drive received an assist from backup RB Michael Turner, who ran 25 yards for a first down on a fake punt. The second touchdown was set up in the second quarter when Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard blocked a punt by San Diego’s Mike Scifres, but the ball was touched beyond the line of scrimmage by Chiefs RB Derrick Ross and recovered by the long snapper, David Binn. Instead of Kansas City getting a big break, it was the Chargers making the most of their second chance with Tomlinson sprinting 85 yards for a touchdown.

Up 14-3 at the half thanks to Tomlinson’s scoring runs, the Chargers went on to win, 20-9. Tomlinson ran 25 times for 199 yards, and with five additional yards on a pass reception, accounted for 204 of San Diego’s 353 total yards. The San Diego passing game had difficulties - a frustrated QB Philip Rivers completed just 8 of 23 passes for 97 yards with two interceptions.

Kansas City’s Larry Johnson, who came into the game as the NFL’s rushing leader, gained 84 yards on 19 attempts and thus fell behind Tomlinson, who went on to lead the league with a career-high 1815 yards on 348 carries (a 5.2-yard average) with 28 TDs (also a record; the other three came on pass receptions). Johnson placed second, carrying a record 416 times for 1789 yards.

Tomlinson, with the two touchdowns, set an NFL record with eight consecutive multi-TD games. It would be his last, though – while he carried the ball another 38 times in San Diego’s last two games of the regular season, and caught three passes, he didn’t reach the end zone in either game.

The Chargers ended up on top of the AFC West with a conference-best 14-2 record. However, the postseason turned bitter as they lost their divisional playoff game to New England (costing Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer his job). Kansas City reached the postseason also, with a 9-7 record that, while it tied them with Denver for second place in the AFC West, earned a wild card berth because of a better divisional record than the Broncos. They exited in the first round, losing to the Indianapolis Colts.

LaDainian Tomlinson was a consensus league MVP selection, hardly a surprise considering the extent of his achievements during the season.