First off, I love Danny Woodhead.
Who wouldn’t want a guy like Woodhead on their team? He’s a passionate player who adds a whole other element to your team.
It may have been a down year for the Chargers in 2015, but the reliable Woodhead flourished. He finished with 80 receptions, which tied the Lions’ Theo Riddick for the most catches among RBs in the NFL. He also finished with 755 receiving yards, which ranked first among backs. He was the leader in both of those categories for the Chargers. Don’t forget, Woodhead was coming off a season (2014) in which he missed 13 games due to a broken leg.
Watching Woodhead go down against the Jacksonville Jaguars was painful to watch. Losing a player of his caliber is so hard to overcome. It is an understatement to say that he will be missed.
So why would there ever be a positive in such a demoralizing moment? Well, the Chargers now have to rely on 2015 first-round pick Melvin Gordon–and that’s a very good thing.
Gordon, who mightily underperformed as a rookie, has been lights out. Granted it’s only been two games, but he looks like a completely different player. Gordon looks like the player who rushed for over 2,500 yards and scored 32 total touchdowns in his final year at Wisconsin. Yeah, it’s almost like we forgot about THAT guy.
Two words: He’s confident.
“When you’re comfortable, it gives you confidence,” Gordon said, via the San Diego Union-Tribune. “And when you have confidence out there, it shows.”
What’s impressive is that Gordon has gotten success against two tough front sevens. The Kansas City Chiefs have arguably a top-five front seven that features Dontari Poe, Jaye Howard and Tamba Hali. Missing sack-artist Justin Houston sets them back just a bit, but they are a deep, talented squad nonetheless. The Jaguars, while young, are stacked on the defensive line, too, especially after signing marquee free agent Malik Jackson and getting second-year pro Dante Fowler back from injury.
Gordon made the most of his carries in Week 1, carrying the ball 14 times for 57 yards (4.1 YPC) and two touchdowns. In Week 2, he shouldered the load with Woodhead out for majority of the game, rushing a career-high 24 times for 102 yards (4.2 YPC) and a touchdown. It was his first career 100-yard game.
Top rushing grades in #NFL Week 1
1. David Johnson, 81.42. Melvin Gordon, 80.53. DeAngelo Williams, 80.14. Todd Gurley, 78.7
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 14, 2016
What killed Gordon last season was the fact that he was hesitant on all his runs. That, along with porous play from an injury-riddled offensive line and incompetent coaching from offensive coordinator Frank Reich, was a recipe for failure. Gordon trained with Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson in the offseason to help turn things around.
And with a healthy, dependable line and better play-calling from new OC Ken Whisenhunt, we now see what Gordon is capable of doing. He’s gained his confidence back. He’s shown the ability to make people miss. He’s running the ball like there’s no tomorrow.
Drafting fullback Derek Watt, Gordon’s teammate at Wisconsin, was one of the more underrated moves this offseason. Second-round tight end Hunter Henry hasn’t made his mark in the passing game yet, but he’s done very well as a blocker, too. These things add up to success.
Lining up in the I-formation more often has done wonders for Gordon. Under center, he has rushed for 129 yards on 29 carries (4.0 YPC) and scored two TDs. He’s done a great job finding the hole when the Chargers are lined up in the shotgun, too, as he’s rushed nine times for 44 yards (4.9 YPC) and a TD.
We’re still waiting for those long touchdown runs like we saw in the preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings (all three of his TDs came from inside the 10-yard line), but he did pull off a 17-yard run and 21-yard run against the Chiefs and Jags, respectively.
But what’s even better is that he’s moving the chains. Gordon already has 12 first downs in two games; he finished with 33 first downs in 14 games last year.
Sep 11, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; San Diego Chargers running back Melvin Gordon (28) is congratulated by guard D.J. Fluker (76) and guard Chris Hairston (75) after scoring a touchdown against Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson (56) in the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
Now, here’s my point: With the way Gordon is playing, the Chargers need to keep feeding him the rock. With Woodhead, the Chargers were more of a two-back offense. It’s great to switch it up every now and then, but when your 2015 first-round pick, who had a strong performance in the first half of Week 1, plays 23-of-73 snaps including just six carries in the second half of an overtime loss to the Chiefs, that’s a problem.
And we’re not sure if Gordon would have carried the ball as much as he did in Week 2 if Woodhead didn’t get hurt. The coaches were hurting themselves by out-thinking which running back to use. It was unfortunate Woodhead left the game, but it forced the Chargers to give the ball to Gordon–and he didn’t disappoint.
And the Chargers should continue to ride it out with Gordon. It’s premature to say, but he looks to be the bell-cow back that we’ve all been waiting for since future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson departed. With the way the Chargers were using Woodhead, Gordon’s potential to be that bell-cow back would have been hindered.
I understand, Gordon isn’t the greatest pass-catching back in the league, but he has improved those skills and will do damage in open space with more repetitions. And he can still be a dominant three-down running back without elite pass-catching skills. Heck, Peterson never had more than 50 catches/500 receiving yards in a season, and look at where that’s gotten him (I can hear the “Hall of Fame” chants all the way from Minnesota). Woodhead played a huge role as a blocker on passing downs, so that’s something Gordon will need to improve on.
The team signed ex-Titans RB/WR/KR Dexter McCluster to replace Woodhead, and while he is a natural fit for the offense (especially with familiarity with Whisenhunt), don’t expect him to replicate Woodhead’s production–and that’s good for Gordon. The 28-year-old McCluster will make an impact wherever he is lined up, but he won’t be overused. The team also has UDFA Kenneth Farrow and ex-Giants Andre Williams as insurance.
The offensive line has done an incredible job, and Gordon is taking the pressure off of quarterback Philip Rivers. The Chargers will succeed this way. Again, you never want to lose an impact player like Woodhead, but it’s time to hop on that Gordon bandwagon, because it is Flash’s time to shine.