After missing two games with a left knee injury, LaDainian Tomlinson instantly provided a spark for the Jets offense Sunday at FedExField. On their first drive, Tomlinson had a tremendous block on a third-down blitz pickup, then caught a screen pass from Mark Sanchez three plays later and raced up the left sideline for 16 yards.
"I was happy to get back out there. Then it was like the first pass I catch and go up the sideline, I tweaked my knee," Tomlinson said on an installment of "Four Quarters" that will air this week on newyorkjets.com. "At that time I was afraid of what was going on. I wasn't sure of the injury."
He headed to the sideline and his return was initially labeled as questionable. But Tomlinson, who suffered a sprained MCL late in the closing moments of the Week 10 loss to the Patriots, was back on the field in the third quarter.
"After the doctors checked it out and I moved around a little bit on the sideline, I started thinking to myself, 'You know what, I think I can get back out there,' " he said. "I said something to Rex about it and he said, 'Oh, wait a minute. Just relax. You don't want to get back out there and hurt yourself.'
"And I said, 'No, Coach, I'm good.' They put me back out there and I did pretty good on it, so I think I'm good to go next week."
Tomlinson only had two touches Sunday, but his 5-yard gain after a direct snap with 5:32 remaining immediately preceded Sanchez's 30-yard game-winning pass to Santonio Holmes. Nearing completion of his 11th professional season, the 32-year-old Tomlinson remains an emotional key on a team that has to stay hot this winter.
"That's who I am as kind of a player, but also I understand that we need that at times — that spark to kind of get us going," he said. "I always tell the guys, 'Where's that passion? Let me see it.' I say that before the games when I call them up."
Tomlinson, a certain Hall of Famer who ranks second all-time in rush touchdowns, sixth in rushing yards and fifth in yards from scrimmage, is truly grateful for the opportunity to play a kids' game and savors each time out.
"Football is supposed to be fun. I remember when I was this young guy's age right here playing football and it wasn't about money," he said while motioning to a youngster in the live audience who appeared to be about 10. "It wasn't about any of that. It was about going out with my buddies and having fun. A lot of times our job is so stressful to win that we forget that part of that as professionals — the fun part of just going out and having fun with your buddies playing football."
With the Jets trailing the Patriots, 37-16, on Nov. 13 and two minutes remaining at MetLife Stadium, Julian Edelman tackled Tomlinson after a 6-yard reception. That forced LT out of the lineup for two contests, but he used the time away to help mentor a pair of the Jets' younger backs.
"It was so disappointing at that time to go down, but I think it gave me the opportunity to kind of refresh a little bit and kind of watch from the distance and help the guys in a different way," he said. "Being on the sideline, really getting guys like Joe McKnight and Bilal Powell, young guys that are going to be an important part of this team in the future, kind of helping them along in different situations."
After a 5-5 start, the Jets have steadied the ship and are right in the thick of the AFC playoff race. Their division title hopes have almost completely evaporated and with it probably any hopes of a home playoff game.
"It's been a tough season, kind of up and down," Tomlinson said. "Kind of some high moments, kind of some low moments losing five games through 12 games. When we looked at ourselves at the beginning of the season, one of our goals was to win a division championship. Obviously we have fallen short of that, but also to make the playoffs, and we still have a chance to do that and ultimately win a championship."
Four games remain and Tomlinson knows the Green & White can't get to 11 unless they reach eight first.
"We think 11 wins will obviously get us in the playoffs, but we can't think about the road ahead," he said. "We have to think about what's right in front of us and this week it's Kansas City."