- Associated Press - Thursday, September 2, 2010

Step in to the NFL’s Last Chance Saloon and look around. There’s an impressive array of talent on display this season.

LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson, making perhaps their last dashes in new locales: LT with the Jets, LJ with the Redskins.

Wideouts Terrell Owens, Joey Galloway and Antwaan Randle El doing their last dances at new addresses. Quarterbacks Jake Delhomme and Matt Hasselbeck with visions of returning to Super Bowl quality, and QBs who barely have reached starting caliber, yet are at a career crossroads: Matt Leinart and Trent Edwards.

Dozens of players are on the spot: Show you can still do the job, or get out of the way for someone younger, stronger, faster, and possibly cheaper.

“I feel confident about myself and what I can still do on the football field even at the age of 36,” says Owens, who joined his third team in three years _ and fifth overall _ when he signed with the Bengals. “There’s no turning back or going back or redoing anything.”

Ah, but that’s sort of what these players must do to avoid becoming endangered species _ rekindle the talents that made them stars. With the exception of the unproven quarterbacks, nearly all of them have Pro Bowl appearances on their resumes.

Alongside those impressive achievements now stand hefty question marks. Has Tomlinson lost a step? Or several steps? Can Washington’s Galloway still go deep? Can Jamal Williams handle double teams in the trenches, allowing Broncos linebackers an easy path to the ball? Are Alan Faneca and Jon Jansen effective and versatile blockers any more? Is the Colts’ Adam Vinatieri, perhaps the best clutch kicker in NFL history, still reliable?

So many doubts. So many critics.

“People can write down whatever they want,” says linebacker/DE Jason Taylor, who somehow has landed in Jets green despite being among the most despised players that team’s fans have ever rooted against. “I’ve always kind of had that chip on my shoulder throughout my career. People have always said I couldn’t do things. … It’s dependent on me now to go out and help this team any way I can.”

And there are plenty of believers among the likes of LT and Taylor.

“The thing, honestly, about Tomlinson is if he’s coming down, he’s coming down from the very top of the mountain,” Jets coach Rex Ryan says of the 31-year-old running back, who was setting records and winning MVP awards as recently as 2006. “It’s not like he was three-quarters of the way coming down.”

But Tomlinson no longer is a dominant back and will share time with second-year tailback Shonn Greene. LT might wind up with more action in the passing game than as a runner.

Johnson was among the few rivals for Tomlinson among NFL backs when LJ was in Kansas City. He’s now part of a crowded backfield in Washington, which might be a good thing considering the wear on his body from carrying the Chiefs’ offense for years.

Johnson has not been an elite player for four seasons, in part because of injuries, in part because of attitude. Yet he’s still around. Why?

“Because I’m not finished doing what I was supposed to do yet,” he says. “My body’s still fresh and young. When you hit 30, that’s when people who sit on the couch … give up on the things that they can do, they used to do when they were 21.

“Being an athlete, you’re year-round working out and doing the things you need to do to keep yourself that way, and so being 30 doesn’t really change anything. … So it’s all about how you keep your body in shape and where your mind is at that point. To me, I don’t feel like stopping no time soon.”

None of these players feels like giving it up yet, yet football is no sport for just hanging on. The potential for embarrassment is high. The potential for injury is higher. They all know they have to do more than the minimum.

“I have had people write me off the past six or seven months,” says Keith Bulluck, the outstanding linebacker with the Titans who joined the Giants this year after his 2009 season was shortened by surgery on his left knee. “If you look at my career, I have been nothing but at the top of my position. I wouldn’t come back if I didn’t plan on playing that way.”

Like Bulluck, Keith Brooking was a mainstay on his former team, the Falcons. A change in defensive philosophy in Atlanta led him to Dallas after 11 years. He had a strong season a year ago, allowing him to chuckle at claims he was washed up.

“That’s a compliment. It means I’ve been in this league a long time,” says the 34-year-old linebacker. “I don’t worry about what people say. The old cliche is, ‘The eye in the sky doesn’t lie.’ Turn on the film and watch it.

“They’re not paying me because I’m too old and can’t play. Who cares what other people say? All that matters is having the respect of my teammates, coaches and peers. That’s all that matters.”

Not quite. Sometimes, redemption matters so much it drives players to prove themselves after years of adversity. Pacman Jones and Michael Vick fall in that category, even though their problems were self-inflicted.

Both have served lengthy suspensions after well-documented run-ins with the law. Both have gotten reprieves. Jones is trying to make it back with the Bengals, and Vick, 30, is Kevin Kolb’s understudy in Philadelphia.

Each knows this is his last dance, his last chance for glory. Or, more simply, the last chance to make a living playing the game they love.

“Of course you change as you grow … it ain’t overnight,” Jones says. “I’m 26 years old now, so I can’t do the same things I was doing at 21, or I’m going to be dead or in jail. I know what my passion is, and my passion is football. I know what I’ve got to do to keep playing football, and that’s what I’m working on doing.

“I’ve got all my Ts crossed and my Is dotted. I know what it takes. I know what I have to do. Period, point blank. I know what my job is here, and I know what the coaches expect out of me and I know what the team expects out of me. It’s straight to the cut: ‘Hey, do your job, don’t get in trouble, you’ll be all right.’”

Ditto, says Vick, who did little as a third-string quarterback in Philly last year, his first season back after serving a federal prison sentence for dogfighting that cost him two years of football.

“If you look at my life over the last year, I’ve been trying to do all of the right things, whether it’s in the community or on the field, or with my family,” Vick says. “And I think that’s what it’s all about. I’m having fun, I had the most fun in the last year than I’ve had in the last eight years I’ve been playing football. I’m just happy to be in the situation I’m in. I’m blessed, and I just have to keep moving forward.”

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