If Gordon struggles early on, could Oliver lead the way?
By Matt Pagels
Ego isn’t necessarily a character flaw. A strong ego leads to confidence, which extends to success for some.
But sometimes a bad ego can blind the answer right in front of you. As Albert Einstein once said, “More the knowledge lesser the ego, lesser the knowledge more the ego.”
When it comes to football, we’ve seen coaches continue to stick with a player even after knowing it was a failed experiment. Admitting one was wrong is hard, and that’s where ego kicks in.
General manager Tom Telesco and the Chargers drafted running back Melvin Gordon with their first pick in 2015 NFL Draft. Not only did they select Gordon, but they gave away a few picks just to secure him. After coming into the season with high expectations, Gordon failed to deliver. He finished with 184 carries for 641 yards and zero touchdowns in 14 games.
Gordon was hesitant on his runs. He was also banged up. It didn’t help that the offensive line couldn’t stay healthy, too.
Some have labeled Gordon a bust; but it was one bad year, and there’s no way the Chargers should give up on him. They have been looking for a bell-cow back for some time. We were spoiled with LaDainian Tomlinson, and that’s what makes us impatient. Realistically, finding a bell-cow back is harder to find these days. Vikings’ Adrian Peterson was the only back last season to finish with 300-plus carries.
I believe Gordon can bounce back, but I’m going to go in another direction right now. What if he can’t? What if the offensive line stays healthy but Gordon still disappoints? Does Telesco own up to his mistake and move on? It’ll be hard to do that after investing a lot in him.
That said, Telesco does have another option to go to, and that’s Branden Oliver. A 2014 undrafted free agent out of Buffalo, Oliver led the team in rushing his rookie year with 582 yards on 160 carries. He also had four total touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving). Injuries to his teammates pushed him up the depth chart. He played in 14 games and started seven of those games when Ryan Mathews missed time.
In 2015, Oliver didn’t get the opportunities like he did the year before since Gordon was dubbed the lead back. But as soon has he got the chance to carry the load, he got hurt (season-ending toe injury in Week 8). He only played in eight games and finished with 31 carries for 108 yards and zero touchdowns. After catching 36 balls for 271 yards in 2014, he only finished with 13 receptions last season. Like Gordon, the offensive line didn’t help Oliver’s cause.
Oliver, 25, will be a restricted free agent after the 2016 season. The 5-foot-8, 208-pounder is considered a bit small to be an every-down back, but the way he plays would make you think otherwise. He’s a bruiser who has excellent patience. He’s a smart runner who has great balance to make those quick cuts. He also has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
If you look at his highlights from the 2014 season, you’ll see what I’m talking about. On the 15-yard touchdown run against the Jets, he shows great vision by cutting inside to find the open lane. He finished with 6.0 yards per carry in that game, and that was against one of the best front sevens in football. Oliver not only shows great burst in these highlights, but he breaks tackles often. He runs like a man on a mission.
And he will even make defensive stars like Clay Matthews look bad:
@BoBelieves why'd you have to do him like that??? #GOAT https://t.co/yXLxr65unJ
— Mackenzie Loesing (@mloesingg) October 21, 2015
There are two players Oliver reminds me of: Falcons’ Devonta Freeman and Ravens’ Justin Forsett. Like Oliver, they are both listed at 5-foot-8 (Forsett is about 10 pounds lighter). Freeman broke onto the scene last season, finishing the year with 1,056 yards (seventh-best) and 11 touchdowns (tied for the most in the league). Freeman was a huge factor in the passing game, too, catching 73 passes for 578 yards and three touchdowns. Forsett was hurt last year, but in 2014—his first season as a Baltimore Raven–he finished with the fifth-most rushing yards (1,266) and led the league with 17 runs of 20-plus yards.
And obviously a good offensive line played a huge role. In 2015, the Falcons had the No. 4 overall offensive line including the eighth-best run-blocking unit, per Pro Football Focus. In 2014, the Ravens’ offensive line ranked No. 3 overall. On the other hand, the Chargers’ offensive line ranked dead last in 2015 and 29th in 2014, per PFF. Oliver’s 2014 numbers may be similar to Gordon’s 2015 numbers, but Oliver only started seven games while Gordon started 13.
Aside from height, Oliver’s speed, juking and receiving ability are why I compared him to those two backs. Health might be an issue with these smaller backs, but the playmaking ability is there.
That said, giving up on your first-round running back would be tough. But if you look at this list right here, only Chris Johnson has really been a success over the last eight seasons (excluding Todd Gurley since he only has one year under his belt).
If Doug Martin, who’s only 27 years old, can continue to play like he did last year, then that’ll make two success stories. Mark Ingram has shown potential, but he has yet to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards. Jonathan Stewart was in a timeshare with DeAngelo Williams for majority of his career, which limited his upside. The rest? Meh.
Again, I see Gordon proving critics wrong. I’m not advocating getting rid of him. He has the talent, and if the offensive line can give him some room to breathe, we’ll see the Gordon we saw at Wisconsin. But there is a back-up plan if he doesn’t live up to expectations.
Even if Gordon thrives this season, the Chargers should still think about keeping Oliver around.