Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2006 | This might be the year we learn what LaDainian Tomlinson can do when the Chargers’ running back is both healthy and playing for a winning team. It’s a combination, for always his amazing feats, he’s lacked in his first five NFL seasons when he enjoyed one or the other.

Put them together and LT might be spelled MVP.

Three years ago, when Tomlinson became the first NFL back to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes in a season – he had 1,645 rushing and 100 catches for 725 yards – he wasn’t selected for the Pro Bowl. The reason, no doubt, was the Chargers finished 4-12.

Two years ago when Tomlinson rushed for 1,335 yards and 17 touchdowns and caught 53 passes for 441 yards and one touchdown, he made the Pro Bowl, but we wondered what he could have done without playing with a nagging groin injury.

Last year when LT – or “Superman without a cape” as fullback Lorenzo Neal likes to call him – rushed for 1,462 yards and 18 touchdowns and caught another 51 passes for 370 yards and two touchdowns, he made the Pro Bowl again, but we wondered what he could have done without painful bruised ribs that forced him to wear additional padding.

This year, assuming the injury bug stays away, he may be elevated to the level MVP candidacy alongside the likes of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

Tomlinson’s four touchdown runs in the Chargers’ remarkable 49-41 comeback win Sunday at the Cincinnati Bengals gave him 15 touchdowns in the past three games. It’s a rate that broke by one TD an NFL record set by Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown.

Until two weeks ago, Brown was a legend Tomlinson admired only from the video highlights he’d seen of the former Cleveland Browns running back.

But in an example of how the football gods are smiling on Tomlinson this year, he encountered Brown in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium a couple of hours before he ran for 172 yards in the Chargers’ 32-25 win over Cleveland. Tomlinson was making his usual on-the-way-to-work walk to the Chargers’ locker room when he came around a corner and he saw Brown, who was with the Browns’ traveling party.

They exchanged greetings, Tomlinson in awe, and since then Tomlinson has accelerated his touchdown totals to a pace that could break Brown’s record of fewest games to reach 100 career touchdowns. Tomlinson has 98 touchdowns in 88 career games. Brown’s record is 100 in 93 games.

Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer has been on record since Tomlinson’s 2003 season – the year NFL players themselves weren’t smart enough to vote him into the Pro Bowl – as saying Tomlinson is the best back he has seen in his 40-year-plus association with pro football.

That’s a time period that includes Jim Brown. And Schottenheimer doesn’t make the statement just to excite Chargers fans. He recently repeated his opinion to the Cleveland media, where such an opinion is considered blasphemy, a few days before the Browns-Chargers game.

“I’ve spent a couple of years here saying he was the one of the best,” Schottenheimer said. “The more I was around him, the more I became convinced he was the best I’ve ever seen. Jim Brown was the guy I always viewed as the best of all-time. LaDainian brings such versatility to everything we do, because he can run with it, he can throw it, he can catch it and he’s a good pass protector. He’s the complete running back.”

When Brown played for Cleveland, one of the knocks against him is he didn’t pass protect for his quarterback. He was only a bruiser when he had the ball in his hands.

But Tomlinson plays the game smart and physically with or without the ball. He only cares about the Chargers gaining yards. Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron referred to Tomlinson’s all-around ability last week.

“It’s a coordinator’s dream to have a player like you have in LaDainian,” Cameron said. “He’s one of the smartest football players I’ve been around. I don’t know if there is a better pass protector – assignment- and technique-wise – in the league. He makes it easy to get up in the morning and stay late. We don’t want to be a one-man offense – we’ve got to keep him healthy and we need to make sure he playing his best football these next two months. It’s tempting to give it to him all the time, but we know that’s not the best thing to do.”

The Chargers have given the ball to Tomlinson enough for him to carry 190 times for 932 yards and an average of 4.9 yards per carry. It’s his best career average since 5.3 in 2003, the last year he played a season without nagging injuries.

Where teams finish up in the win column has a big impact on MVP voting, but this may be the Chargers’ winning record makes LT and a winner in the MVP voting.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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