SAN DIEGO (AP) - Feeling fit and happy to have played in two preseason games, LaDainian Tomlinson is at a crossroads heading into the 2009 NFL season.
So is his team.
If Tomlinson can come anywhere close to his record-setting form of 2006, he could help carry the San Diego Chargers to their first NFL championship.
If he struggles, the Chargers might fall short of the high expectations surrounding them. The doubters will likely re-emerge, just like they did during a bumpy offseason when age, salary cap concerns, a career-low rushing total and his recent injury history made it look like Tomlinson's days with the Bolts were over.
Playing under a reworked contract, Tomlinson enters his ninth NFL season looking for the same thing as always - "to put together a solid season and go where we've never been before."
That, of course, would be the Super Bowl. Not just getting there, mind you, but winning it.
It's just one of the motivations that drives one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. Along with a desire to stay healthy and prove he can still play at a high level now that he's turned 30.
"I feel I have a lot left," Tomlinson said as the Chargers prepared to open against his favorite punching bag, the Oakland Raiders. "I feel I have a lot more winning inside. A lot of my career, I spent a lot of it losing, you know, a lot of games, and so now I'm at a point where we have a good team and we can win a lot of games."
Tomlinson has given his heart, soul and body to a team that was a mess when he joined the NFL.
The Chargers were coming off a one-win season and had the chance to draft Michael Vick with the No. 1 pick overall in 2001. Instead, they swapped the top choice to Atlanta and took Tomlinson with the fifth pick overall.
It wasn't until his fourth season that he enjoyed a winning record, and his seventh before he experienced a playoff victory.
Then came last offseason, and it seemed as if Tomlinson, the face of the Chargers, would be shown the door, just as the Chargers had unceremoniously dumped stars Junior Seau, Rodney Harrison, Drew Brees and coach Marty Schottenheimer earlier in the decade.
"Yeah, there was a time when I was going through a situation where I did feel like that," Tomlinson said. "Honestly, I was prepared, feeling like it was probably the end."
A five-time Pro Bowler, Tomlinson owns or shares 28 team records. The NFL's 14th all-time leading rusher with 11,760 yards, he ranks second in career touchdowns rushing (126) and is tied for fourth in total touchdowns (141).
Eager to get back into a groove after toe and groin injuries slowed him last season, Tomlinson played in the preseason for the first time since 2005.
"He's fresh and he really looks as good as he did three or four years ago before that record-breaking year," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "I would expect him to play at a super-high level."
Tomlinson was voted the NFL MVP in 2006, when he set league records with 31 touchdowns - 28 rushing - and 186 points. He also won the first of two straight league rushing titles with a career-high 1,815 yards.
"He's ready to go," center Nick Hardwick said. "He's got a lot of spring in his legs."
Tomlinson's numbers last year no doubt had observers puzzled. His 1,110 yards were a career low and his 11 touchdowns rushing were his second fewest. Still, his yardage was fourth best in the AFC and 10th in the NFL.
"I think people get a misunderstanding with L.T. because they figure his numbers dictate how well he can play. I just don't think he has to do as much with the guys around us," said star tight end Antonio Gates, mentioning how teammates Darren Sproles, Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson help take off the pressure.
Tomlinson thinks the Chargers are in a "perfect situation" and that winning the Super Bowl is a realistic goal.
"It's something I've always dreamed about as a kid, is being in that Super Bowl game and winning that championship and being up on that podium," he said. "It's something that as a player, that's what defines you. That's what makes you complete as a player.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.