With LaDainian Tomlinson returning to San Diego last week to retire as a Charger, a circle has finally closed. I’m not only referring to LT’s career, but also to the awkward two-year arc of his departure from San Diego.
After a second straight postseason cut short due to injury, LaDainian almost left in 2009.
But Dean Spanos and AJ Smith were able to put together a one-year deal with a "balloon payment" that served more like a time bomb. That’s why there was almost no chance that he would return beyond the ‘09 season. After 11 consecutive wins to close out the year, everything was set up for a march to long-awaited glory and that ride off into the sunset.
But another January meltdown of interceptions, head butts and missed field goals ended that in an instant.
Even though he downplayed it at the time, AJ Smith drafted Ryan Mathews to replace LaDainian Tomlinson. The divorce between LT and the Bolts was fragile enough that publicly stating much wouldn’t have done any good. But Smith didn’t trade up to the 12th pick for a part-time running back. Mathews himself grew up worshiping Tomlinson. He didn’t need any more pressure replacing him.
The first two years with Mathews have been a roller-coaster ride. However, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. If the issues that have held Mathews back can be corrected, or even improved upon, he can take the next step in his development. If he can, he’ll take the Bolts with him and into January.
Here are five things that would constitute a successful season for Ryan Mathews:
This has been an issue since Mathews’ first game in Kansas City. Incidentally, LT himself fumbled eight times during his rookie season with five recovered by the opposition.
On that opening night in Arrowhead, Mathews and the Chargers looked to be finally heating up. But once Matthews coughed up the ball, their momentum went with it. His pad level seemed very high, and when he was met with NFL tackling, he just couldn’t hang on. He got flattened on the play; it looked like his body was entirely unprepared for the hit.
This has been a problem throughout Mathews’ two seasons. Each fumble seems to come at a particularly critical time in the game. Even the ones the Chargers recover have their effect. It’s not only hard to rectify a fumbling problem, it’s equally hard to shed that label. Mathews himself admitted as much last season, as noted by NBC San Diego.
However, he also admitted later to losing focus on the issue when discussing it with the Union-Tribune after his pivotal fumble in Chicago. He wouldn't talk to reporters immediately after the game, but later confessed to relaxing once he hit the hole in the Windy City. These were hard words to hear to Charger coaches, players and fans.
This leads me directly to my next point.
After his rookie season and the ensuing lockout, Mathews showed up to camp far from perfect, physical condition. In fact, he failed the team’s conditioning test.
Coming off a bye with a 4-1 record, the Bolts season turned for the worse in New Jersey against the Jets. This was the type of game where Mathews could really have made his mark and helped the Chargers control the time of possession.
Unfortunately, he was only able to amass 39 yards, and Plaxico Burress ate Antoine Cason alive for three touchdown catches. It was yet another game where Norv Turner relied more heavily on Mike Tolbert. When Mathews bounces outside, he really looks like a young LaDainian Tomlinson, but it’s been hard for Charger coaches, players and fans to fully trust him at this point.
Mike Tolbert and his unnecessary touchdown celebrations are now in Carolina. Le’Ron McClain was signed from Baltimore to lead the way for Mathews. The Chargers will have no choice to take the training wheels off.
Only time will tell if he’s up for the challenge.
All signs are positive for No. 2 on this list. Mathews has come into minicamp grateful for the trust the Bolts have put in him. As Union-Tribune San Diego notes, he’s added muscle in the offseason, and he seems committed to truly becoming the featured back. No one has openly suggested that his lack of conditioning is the reason that he’s been unable to stay on the field, but it’s hard to imagine that his being in better shape won’t help.
In fact, his efforts towards improved ball security and greater maturity would seem to be in line with staying healthy.
The nuances of playing running back in the NFL also come into play here. Mathews needs to learn when and how to absorb punishment when he can control it as there are times when barreling ahead for that last half-yard may not be the best thing in the end.
Ronnie Brown’s arrival as a true backup for Mathews should also help to preserve his health. Ricky Williams was able to serve the same purpose in Baltimore last year for Ray Rice.
With Antonio Gates hobbled for much of the season and Darren Sproles in New Orleans, the Chargers had trouble finding guys who could score when they hit the opponent’s 10-yard line. Mathews has already proven that he can consistently get to the outside and into the end zone from that distance.
However, there were entire three-down series where Mathews wouldn’t even be on the field in these spots last season. I always assumed another "Norvism" was the cause, although many of the things already on the list may have given him pause to trust Mathews completely.
But Mathews can be a lethal weapon. When he rushed for over 100 yards and scored three touchdowns in that aforementioned Denver game, he was the first Charger not named Means or Tomlinson to do so since the AFC Championship season of 1994.
Mathews could easily hit those marks again this year, if given the chance.
(I don’t know if this is even an actual term. If it’s not, I’m taking credit for coining it.)
Mathews was often pulled on third-and-longs. Even at Fresno State, his blocking, particularly picking up blitzes, has always been an area of concern. With the season Philip Rivers had a year ago, this was a serious liability. Mathews has improved as a receiver over the course of his first two seasons, and this is another area where he should absorb the subtleties of being a complete back.
A well-placed screen pass can not only keep the quarterback upright, but break the spirits of opposing defenses in those very third-and-long scenarios. Becoming a better blocker will keep Mathews’ skill set on the field in those spot, and knowing just when to release into the flat and how far to run before turning for the ball are things that will follow. This will hopefully cut down on those passes that fall at his shoetops or get knocked down by lineman.
Just as a great screen can knock the wind out of a defense, there is nothing more dispiriting than seeing the quarterback miss barely delivering the ball to a back with nothing but open field and eager blockers ahead of him.
These types of missed opportunities will hopefully be few and far between for Mathews this year. The same could be said for his emergence as the featured back in San Diego. He’ll get every chance to shine this season,. and when things get tough, Norv won’t be as quick to pull him off the field. How Mathews works through old and new obstacles will be the difference in both his and the Chargers fortunes this year.