ASHBURN, Va. -- When Washington Redskins safety Ryan Clark received a call from former teammate Antonio Pierce after Sunday's loss to the Oakland Raiders, what Pierce said nearly dropped Clark to the floor.
"He said [LaDainian Tomlinson is] the best in the league," Clark said. "For Antonio [now with the New York Giants] to say that, that's a big statement because he very seldom gives out compliments. So that was big and I respect that."
Only recently has Tomlinson been earning that kind of respect, despite a resume that includes a minimum of 1,236 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his first four seasons.
Some of that has to do with playing for a San Diego Chargers team that won the AFC West division last year and is 6-4 this season as it prepares to visit Washington (5-5) on Sunday at 1 p.m.
But Redskins defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, who spent the 2003 season in San Diego, said Tomlinson's ability should have never been in question since the moment the Chargers used the fifth overall pick in the 2001 draft on the Texas Christian product.
"At the time, we were going through some rough seasons, and that's the politics thing about it," Salave'a said. "Sometimes a team's record doesn't tell the whole story about how a player's doing, but he has consistently put up tremendous numbers over the years, so he's finally getting the recognition."
Tomlinson, the league's seventh-leading running back last season, is fifth in rushing (902 yards) and fourth in yards from scrimmage (1,188). Perhaps more importantly, he is tied with Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander for the league lead in touchdowns with 19 - 14 rushing, three passing and two receiving.
Tomlinson, who shares the league record of 18 consecutive games with a rushing touchdown with former Colts great Lenny Moore, needs just 98 rushing yards to post his fifth straight 1,000-yard season and join a group of six that includes Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson.
Tomlinson's achievements have already impressed his coach.
"Before last year, I used to say that I thought that he was one of the best," Marty Schottenheimer said during a conference call with Washington media. "The more I watch him and the more I see of him, with all due respect to the many great runners that have preceded him, in my opinion he's the best running back I've ever seen in professional football."
Touched by his coach's statement, Tomlinson said he prefers to model himself after Walter Payton.
"He was able to block people, he was able to catch the football and we all knew what he could do running the football," Tomlinson said. "He was just the complete player. When I think of the greatest back, it has to be someone that was dependable and you could put him in any situation, and they'd be able to get the job done. Walter Payton, for me, was that guy."
Dale Lindsey, Washington's linebackers coach, compared Tomlinson favorably to Sanders.
"He's got Barry Sanders moments of getting into a hole and, if somebody thinks he has him, he makes a cut and accelerates away from you," said Lindsey, who was the Chargers' defensive coordinator in 2002 and 2003. "Everybody's got to be very disciplined when they attack him. You've got to have 11 guys after him because it's hard to get him down one-on-one. You're going to have to have two or three to get him down."
Tomlinson should be a familiar face for Redskins fans. In his first game in the NFL in 2001, he rushed 36 times for 113 yards and two touchdowns as the Chargers saddled Schottenheimer with his first loss as Washington's coach.
Tomlinson will test a Redskins defense that - since surrendering 206 yards to the Giants' Tiki Barber on Oct. 30 - has held the Eagles' Brian Westbrook, the Buccaneers' Carnell Williams and the Raiders' LaMont Jordan to less than 53 rushing yards each.
Still, linebacker Marcus Washington said it's a different situation with Tomlinson.
"He can hit a hole and he'll hit it 100 miles per hour," Washington said. "He'll make guys miss and run guys over and catch the ball from the backfield. I think that's what makes him so good. He can do a little bit of both. ... He can hurt you in the run game and the pass game. He's definitely a double threat, which makes it tough."