I get it. You’re frustrated. The Super Bowl window is, at best, hanging by a thread, and if any opening exists at all, you’re wondering just how you may be able to squeeze through. You try revamping the offensive line – injuries blow your plan dead. You try giving Philip Rivers an extension – his receivers are immediately sidelined. You try trading up to draft one of the most explosive running back prospects in recent memory – and the funniest thing happens: just like you, he seems utterly perplexed by the challenge of carving his way through the gaps before him.
If you haven’t deduced it already, the running back referenced above is none other than soon-to-be second year pro Melvin Gordon III.
Nov 29, 2015; Jacksonville, FL, USA; San Diego Chargers running back Melvin Gordon (28) runs the ball against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field. The Chargers won 31-25. Mandatory Credit: Jim Steve-USA TODAY Sports
In his highly-anticipated rookie season, Gordon, well… didn’t do all that much. He was fairly consistently stuffed behind the line of scrimmage, occasionally afforded space for a big run, and most notably, rode a staggering level of indecisiveness to a paltry 3.5 yards per carry. Watching him try to decide which gap to run through (or, in his mind, which gap might give him the best chance to make a highlight-reel play) was kind of like watching a Woody Allen character try to make a crucial life-decision. He went one way, reversed course the other, turned back the first way, and before he knew what hit him, Bam! He was on the floor, frazzled, and unsure of how, exactly, the gap that seemed so wide open closed on him so incredibly quickly.
It’s become something of a cliche for people to say that the speed of the NFL game takes time to adjust to, but cliches are made for a reason and Melvin Gordon is a poster-child for this cliche if there ever was one.
His frustration is palpable. You can see it on his face every time he carries the ball – how badly he wants to recreate the electricity he fostered at Wisconsin. He wants it so badly, in fact, that he’s entered a state of complete tunnel-vision, in which he seems unable to detect the holes that would reap him steady yardage, and has a sense only for the ones that could net him a spot on the SportsCenter Top 10. He’s not the first back to have this problem, and would hardly be the first to recover from it, which is why I’m telling you this:
Be patient. Melvin Gordon is not a lost cause.
Yes, much of what plagued him throughout his rookie campaign can be placed squarely on his shoulders, but in order to gain a well-rounded understanding of exactly where Gordon stands, one also has to consider the circumstances in which he was forced to play.
Nov 22, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers running back Melvin Gordon (28) walks off the field after being beaten by the Kansas City Chiefs 33-3 at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Just like Rivers, Gordon was tasked with the challenge of playing behind a revolving door at offensive line. Unlike Rivers, he was forced to do this while still trying to find his footing as an NFL player. For those of you that view this as anything but an enormous task, put yourself in his cleats:
You’ve just taken the handoff and are quickly approaching your top speed (which is totally the same speed as Gordon’s, right?). The strong side B-Gap between the guard and tackle is opening up nicely, and given your chemistry with the tackle, you know that he’ll be able to release and take on the linebacker at the next level, which would create a nice cushion for you to bounce through the hole. The only problem? This isn’t the tackle you’ve been playing with in practice. This tackle shifted over from guard minutes before the game. And the guard from center. They’ve rarely played these positions – let alone played them together. You wonder whether they’ll see the backer ahead. Should you risk it? Your mind starts racing. Your hesitation guides you to the outside. And why wouldn’t it? The outside was always good to you in college, right? Your feet start shifting directions – suddenly, you remember your coach’s words in practice – how he reamed you wandering beyond the tackles. How he told you to trust the blocks in front of you. But, that was before your starting tackle got injured. He couldn’t possibly mean you should trust the new guy, right? The defense closes in. Your head starts spinning. WHACK! You’ve been stuffed for a loss, and what’s worse, you’re even more confused than you were beforehand.
I think we’ve begun to take for granted the importance of a steady offensive line. We’ve grown accustomed to watching Rivers dominate competition with nothing but spare parts around him, and as a result, have begun to assume that any player worth his weight should be able to do the same. And though I, much like most of you, have been guilty of cursing Gordon’s name in a moment of heated divisional-game frustration, the reality is that this line of thinking is more than a little bit naive — it’s downright unfair to the player.
As Chargers fans, it’s understandable that we’ve grown a bit impatient. By most metrics, we “should have” won (or at least played in) more than a couple of Super Bowls over the past decade, and as mentioned above, it’s impossible to escape the feeling of the window drawing shut. But, if you can find it in your hearts to exercise patience just once more, please do. The flash that we saw on that Wisconsin tape was not an illusion. And if the 2016 season should produce an offensive line capable of remaining healthy, as a unit, for more than a couple of games at a time, we very well may see that flash return to form.. and suddenly, that crack in our window would be wide open once again.