BOSTON (CBS) — LaDainian Tomlinson was one of the best, most dynamic running backs to ever play football, yet in New England, his legacy is hardly held in such esteem.
That’s because nobody here can ever forgot what Tomlinson did after the Patriots defeated his Chargers in the 2006 playoffs. As players shook hands on the field after the Patriots’ 24-21 victory over the NFL-best Chargers, some Patriots mimicked the celebratory dance of San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman, who would “flip the switch” in his “Lights Out” dance after recording a sack. Tomlinson was greatly offended by the Patriots’ gross misdeed of doing the same dance that his teammate does, and he got into a little shoving and screaming match with several Patriots players on the field. He then went to the podium and said:
“I would never, ever, react in that way. You guys know me — I’m a very classy person. I wouldn’t have reacted like that. So yes, I was upset, very upset. Because when you go to the middle of our field and you start doing the dance that Shawne Merriman is known for, that’s disrespectful to me, and I can’t sit there and watch that. So yeah, I was very upset — just the fact that they showed no class at all. Absolutely no class. And maybe that comes from their head coach. So you know, there you have it.”
That reaction — combined with his unforgettable show of performance art the following postseason, when he impersonated a mannequin during the AFC Championship Game at Gillette while his quarterback played through a torn ACL — has pretty much defined Tomlinson to Patriots fans. However, now that he’s retired and is just waiting for his eventual Hall of Fame induction, the 34-year-old has had plenty of time to contemplate, and he regrets what he said about Belichick.
“I believe we all say things we regret,” Tomlinson, now an NFL Network analyst, tweeted on Tuesday night when a special on his career aired. “I certainly regret when I said the Patriots classless act came from their head coach. I should [have] kept it between the players. Bill Belichick had nothing to do with it.”
OK then, all is forgiven, right? Well … no.
Earlier this week, Tomlinson and Merriman sat on a panel with former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest to talk about that fateful day in January 2007. And it was very clear in both former Chargers’ comments that they are still upset about what a few Patriots did on their field.
“Listen, as players, and when you come into an NFL locker room, we always talk about protecting your house. Don’t let anyone disrespect your home,” Tomlinson said. “So I felt like at that point, it was up to me to do something about it, and a lot of people kind of took it and blew it out of proportion.”
(Whenever the best player in the sport starts a mini-fracas after a loss and then calls out a Hall of Fame coach on live television, it’s going to become a big story. But to Tomlinson, it was blown out of proportion. Ehhhhh.)
Merriman and Tomlinson shared the same sentiment about what went down.
“I looked up, and I’m seeing guys doing one of the most disrespectful things you can do in sports, and that’s taunting after you just finished defeating an opponent in a huge game like that,” said Merriman, who — again — very famously did the exact same dance to celebrate big plays but found it disrespectful when other men did it. “I’m like, ‘What is the need? You already won the game, why are you doing this?’
“And L being not only a good friend of mine but a great teammate, went over and defended me and said, ‘Look guys, you’re not supposed to be doing this over here. Why are you doing this? You just won a game — give it up.’ It was disrespectful.”
“From my standpoint, they won the game, that’s fine,” Tomlinson added. “There’s no problem with that. But don’t disrespect our field. That’s when you have a problem. In any NFL locker room, guys will have a problem with that.”
Perhaps, but refusing to shake hands with players who had nothing to do with the perceived lack of disrespect, shoving former teammate Reche Caldwell when he’s trying to congratulate you and then stepping to the podium and pinning it all on the head coach? Only Tomlinson can claim to have done that.
McGinest, who was not on that ’06 Patriots team but had an in-depth knowledge of how Belichick operates, said the coach uses outside praise of opponents to fire up his team.
“Bill Belichick has an innate ability to take all those things that he’s hearing on the outside and motivate his team,” McGinest said. “This team had been hearing all these different things … so they were a little irritated. They got tired of hearing about you, L.T., what was happening. So it was a lot of build-up. Once they won that game, I think that’s where it all kind of released out and poured out. Whether it was wrong or right.”
Tomlinson quickly interjected, smiling but sincere: “You know it was wrong!”
While expressing regret for calling out Belichick is a good first step for Tomlinson in what has clearly been a six-year struggle to get over the painful sight of a couple of guys dancing for a few seconds, he’s still missing the easiest solution: Just blame Marlon McRee. If that man understood the basic concepts of the sport of football and batted down Tom Brady’s fourth-down pass rather than intercept it, you would have won the game and possibly gone on to win a Super Bowl. Six years later, what McRee did on the field should be much more offensive to Tomlinson than what a few Patriots did on the Chargers logo.
Nevertheless, Tomlinson is a classy person, and he’s still mad about that dancing. But at least he’s forgiven Bill. That’s what a classy person would do.