SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Chargers appear to be bracing their fans for the possibility that LaDainian Tomlinson's brilliant eight-year run with the team could be over.
According to the team's Web site, club president Dean Spanos called the star running back Thursday to discuss reports that the Chargers might part with Tomlinson, who has been slowed by injuries the last two postseasons and will count $8.8 million against the salary cap next year.
"We talked about the situation and I just tried to explain everything that must be considered," Spanos said in a story detailing the offseason decisions the team must make. "I told him we haven't even started our discussions and won't for a while, so don't jump to any conclusions. And I told him I would call him personally to make sure he's aware of everything that's going on."
Tomlinson, the NFL MVP in 2006, missed the Chargers' playoff loss at Pittsburgh on Sunday with a groin injury. That, coupled with the lowest rushing total of his career, has led to speculation that the team might try to trade or even release L.T.
Tomlinson, who turns 30 in June, is under contract through 2011. Slowed by toe and groin injuries, Tomlinson gained a career-low 1,110 yards in 2008. Two seasons earlier, he set NFL records with 31 touchdowns — including 28 rushing — and 186 points.
The team declined to make Spanos available for further comment. Tomlinson didn't immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Six years ago, the Chargers were criticized for the way they got rid of star linebacker Junior Seau. Feeling Seau's play was in decline, the Chargers told him he was free to pursue a trade.
During a farewell news conference at the restaurant he owns, Seau said he had lobbied the team to release him so he could seek a free-agent deal. Describing himself as fired, unemployed and humbled, the 12-time Pro Bowler Seau was then traded to the Miami Dolphins.
In another unpopular move, the Chargers cut hard-hitting safety Rodney Harrison after the 2002 season because he'd been slowed by an ankle injury. The Patriots signed Harrison as a free agent and he ended up winning two Super Bowls with them.
Tomlinson hurt his groin in the regular-season finale against Denver on Dec. 28. He started the wild-card playoff game against Indianapolis but came out after scoring a touchdown early in the second quarter. The Chargers went on to beat the Colts 23-17 in overtime, carried by Darren Sproles' 328 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner.
Tomlinson didn't suit up against Pittsburgh, which beat the Chargers 35-24. The Steelers held Sproles, who'll become an unrestricted free agent, to 15 yards on 11 carries.
After the Broncos game, the Chargers announced that Tomlinson had a strained groin. Reports surfaced the day of the playoff game against the Colts that Tomlinson had a detached tendon that connects one of his groin muscles to his pubic bone.
Four days later, Tomlinson — long the franchise's most brutally honest employee — confirmed that he had a detached tendon and practically scoffed at the team's public diagnosis.
"If it was a strain I'd be able to play with it, trust me," Tomlinson said. "A lot of guys have strains."
General manager A.J. Smith was livid that the severity of Tomlinson's injury was revealed and called out the player's camp.
A year ago, Tomlinson missed most of the AFC championship game at New England with a sprained ligament in his left knee. He stood glumly on the sidelines huddled in a parka, wearing his helmet with a tinted visor. Some people criticized Tomlinson's toughness, but the Chargers themselves had provided an overly optimistic update on his injury, announcing in the press box early in the second quarter that Tomlinson had a "sore knee" and that he "can return."
Perhaps wanting to keep up some gamesmanship, the Chargers never updated that report even though Tomlinson and coach Norv Turner later said they knew by early in the second quarter that the running back wouldn't return.
"It's obvious that I couldn't play," Tomlinson said afterward. "If I could have played, I would have been in there."
Tomlinson's agent, Tom Condon, has declined comment.
Condon clients have been at odds with Smith in the past, notably Marty Schottenheimer, Donnie Edwards and Eli Manning.
Schottenheimer was fired as San Diego's coach in February 2007 because of what Spanos called a "dysfunctional situation" with Smith. Edwards, who led the Chargers in tackles for five straight seasons, fell into disfavor with Smith, apparently for asking one time too many for a contract extension, and was allowed to leave as an unrestricted free agent following the 2006 season.
Three days before the 2004 draft, Smith revealed that Archie Manning, through Condon, didn't want his son, Eli, to be taken by the Chargers with the No. 1 pick overall.
Smith picked Manning anyway, then dealt him to the New York Giants for Philip Rivers and a haul of picks that he used to select kicker Nate Kaeding in that draft and star outside linebacker Shawne Merriman in the first round of the 2005 draft.
Eli Manning was MVP of the Giants' Super Bowl upset of New England last year.
After the 2005 season, Smith chose to keep Rivers over Drew Brees, another Condon client.