FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – LaDainian Tomlinson feels like a kid again.
He's playing like one, too.
The New York Jets running back is also proving all of his critics wrong. You know, the ones who said he was washed up, just a shell of the jaw-dropping player he once was.
"I feel like I'm back to my old self again," the eighth-leading rusher in NFL history said Thursday. "I'm happy and enjoy playing with these guys. We've got a great group of guys, a great coaching staff who really knows how to use the guys well. It's fun to play football."
Tomlinson has enjoyed a solid start to the season, his first with his new team after nine years in San Diego. He leads the Jets with 138 yards rushing, has six catches for 42 yards and has flashed some of the dazzling, playmaking moves that made him one of the NFL's most dangerous players with the ball in his hands.
"Is he actually better than I thought he would be? Yep, he is," coach Rex Ryan said. "I thought he was going to be outstanding, but right now, he's even better than that. Man, he's something else."
At 31, Tomlinson is no youngster in football years, and considered by many to be over the hill at his position. That label seemed to apply to Tomlinson, whose rushing totals decreased in each of the last three seasons.
"This is the worst guy in the world to question and to criticize because he literally takes it to heart," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "I think you see a guy that has so much to prove. He has so much that he wants to prove."
Still, Tomlinson ran for only 730 yards last season, his first under 1,000, and appeared slow and without much of a burst.
"I think he has a chip on his shoulder," right tackle Damien Woody said. "Everybody out there figured he was washed up and looked at the last couple of years in San Diego. I don't think that was indicative of who he is."
Tomlinson said as much after being signed by the Jets as a free agent in March. A toe injury hampered him in 2008, and a sprained ankle that caused him to miss two games last year affected him all season. He also said the Chargers moved away from a run-first mentality, something that drastically reduced his effectiveness.
"I don't live my life worrying about what critics say because it's their opinion," he said. "Everybody has one."
Tomlinson recently became a father for the first time, and his newborn son has helped give him a different perspective on life at home and off the field.
"I could stop playing football today, honestly," he said, "and I could walk away from the game today and be just as proud saying, 'You know what? I'm going home to raise my son and be with my family,' and be fine with it."
Healthy at this point in a season for the first time since 2007, Tomlinson said playing in the preseason — something he rarely did in San Diego — helped him.
"I feel like a young man, to be honest with you," Tomlinson said. "Hopefully that can continue. I think I'll be healthy the whole season."
Cornerback Antonio Cromartie played with Tomlinson in San Diego for four seasons, and likes what he's seeing.
"Just seeing from the past two seasons to this season," he said, "he just looks like the L.T. I knew when I came in in 2006."
Schottenheimer was an assistant under his father, Marty, in San Diego from 2002-05 and watched Tomlinson develop into a record-breaking running back.
"He's still playing at an extremely high level," Schottenheimer said. "I'm not going to say it's the best football I've ever seen him play because it's hard to probably match some of the things, but he's playing extremely well."
And, there have been a few good examples of that:
— His electrifying 31-yard run in the Jets' 28-14 victory over New England when he nearly shook Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich out of his shoes.
"I'm not real sure," Ryan said, "but there's some equipment still out on the field."
— The shovel pass he took from Mark Sanchez and turned what looked to be a blown play into a 9-yard gain and a first down.
— The victory-sealing leap he took over the pile on fourth-and-1.
"I don't even think about whether I surprise people or not," he said. "I've got to be ready to play. I'm always ready to play when I get out there. I expect it. I expect to make big plays for this team and that's the way I approach it."
Notes: NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith met with the players after practice, and fullback Tony Richardson, the Jets' player representative, said the team voted in favor of giving the NFLPA the right to decertify if there is a lockout next year.