Running Out Of…Chances – Ryan Mathews, the Lead Back


Nov 25, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews (24) warms up before a game against the Baltimore Ravens at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Alright, we´ve talked a lot about the offensive line and the outside linebacker position lately. But I think the ground game situation deserves some attention too. And now that those roster spots had been fixed by our hard working General Manager, it´s maybe time to take quick look at the running back position.

I already mentioned in a previous piece that I´ve been going through some Chargers tape from last season and I got to see all the “great moments” again that let us desperately sink onto our knees – you know what talking about: a struggling O-Line, a mediocre quarterback, a “No. 1 wideout” becoming “the No. 1 bench warmer” and a coach on the sidelines knowing his time in Bolt town is already over. But I barely got to see a ground game; or at least something that´s worth to be called like that.

It seems everybody is talking about a make-or-break season for the Bolts´ No. 1 back, Ryan Mathews. He was on the way to become a fan favorite, but with his last season he lost most of his popularity among BoltAddicts. He is coming off his worst season in the National Football League, averaging a career low 3.8 yards per rushing attempt to go along with a career low one rushing touchdown.
We fans and the whole Chargers´ organization had very high expectations for the Chargers´ No. 24. And with good reason, because the Bolts traded all the way up from No. 28 to No. 12 in round one of the 2010 NFL Draft to select him.

In 2011, Mathews ranked 10th in the NFL with 1,091 rushing yards and 4.9 yards per rushing attempt.  But he got off to a rough start last year when he broke his clavicle in the preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.  He missed the first two games in 2012 and his season ended in week 15 when he broke his other clavicle against the Carolina Panthers.

But although Mathews is (still) the designated Chargers’ lead back, he wasn´t the only problem last season as the team averaged 3.6 yards per rushing attempt which ranked 31st in the league. The O-Line surely had it´s part on that lack of success. But the first round pick D.J. Fluker at right tackle and (probably) Jeromey Clary at right guard, should be able to open up enough holes for Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead (and the other guys) to gain more yards this year. The Bolts have gone 19 straight games without a 100-yard rusher; this negative streak has to end as soon as possible.

The new Chargers´ brass still got trust in No. 24 and expect big things from the injury-prone running back in 2013. But who´s there to help Ryan Mathews in the ground game and who can take over the lead back role when he goes down with an injury, just like he did so many times in past years? Not too sure if the “third-down backs” Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown can handle the rushing game on their own. And due to his history of (season-ending) knee injuries, Foswhitt “Fozzy” Whittaker can´t be considered as reliable option either (at least not for this season). Edwin Baker spent most of his rookie year on the practice squad and hasn´t seen any on-field action last year.

Maybe undrafted free agent Michael Hill could be the missing link here. Hill finished second in the voting for the Harlon Hill Trophy in 2012; this award is the Division II equivalent to the Heisman Trophy. He was the rushing leader in that division last season with 2186 yards and 16 touchdowns; but he also was able to record three receiving touchdowns. The 5’10″, 210-pound speedster got experience in running in a zone blocking scheme; i.e. he brings along the required patience to let the O-Line do their job before he chooses his running lane.

So, we surely got talent at the running back position, but I guess that´s not enough – it´s time to put up numbers again! Ryan Mathews is entering his fourth year with the Bolts and definitely has to prove something. He has to show that he can be a reliable lead back for the next few years. Over his three seasons with Chargers, he had 12 fumbles; 7 of them for loss. He has to find a way to fix that issue, otherwise Tom Telesco will start thinking about using a high draft pick (first round?) on a top running back prospect in 2014.

And before I close this piece right here I want to mention that Ahmad Bradshaw is still available in free agency. I know it´s highly unlikely that Telesco is even considering that option, especially now that he used quite a lot of money on veteran free agents. Having another experienced runner on the team would be a cool thing, but after all this wouldn´t be exactly a good move due to the current cap space situation in Bolt town (and the fact that Bradshaw is very injury-prone too).

I guess the Chargers bosses might have a bigger role in mind for Danny Woodhead, than Bill Belichick had for him in New England. They obviously trust him as lead back when Mathews goes down. Hopefully we don´t have to experience this scenario and Woodhead will mainly rock the field in third-down and two-minute offenses.

In the end the O-Line will have to do a better job opening lanes for the backs and the lead back Ryan Mathews has to prove that he´s worth to be called like that. There is always a next draft with the potential to make (nearly) any player on the roster expendable.

So, please No. 24, use your talent to put up numbers (again) and step up your game!

Thank you for checking out these lines and feel free to share your thoughts about the Chargers´ lead back and the whole ground game situation in the comments section below. Thanks again!