San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews missed six games total in his first two professional seasons. He'd already missed Weeks 1 and 2 of this season before returning against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
But fragility isn't the chief concern facing the third-year back. He can't hold on to the ball, frequently committing football's cardinal sin with critical fumbles.
It's easy to replace Mathews when he's hurt; pop in Curtis Brinkley or Ronnie Brown and watch them run. The Chargers rely primarily on their aerial attack, but what do you do when Mathews isn't doing his job?
San Diego used the No. 12 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft to select Mathews. Abandoning him now is a depressing option, but you can't allow a primary ball-carrier to continue giving the ball away.
According to North County Times reporter Scott Bair, Mathews has fumbled 11 times in 27 games. He's lost six of those, but that's not the point. The ball is hitting the ground far too often, whether his team recovers it or not.
Bair states that, "During his career, Mathews has fumbled once every 42 carries. By contrast, LaDainian Tomlinson fumbled once every 126 touches, although Tomlinson wasn't as sure-handed early in his career."
For Chargers fans, LT is the gold standard. The comparison shows how dire this situation is, and it only gets worse. Bair mentions that five of the six lost fumbles came inside San Diego's 30-yard line, or inside the opponent's 30.
Losing the ball is one thing; giving it away at important places on the field is another.
Mathews will have chances to change this trend, but it's a major issue at this point. He fumbled in the first half against Atlanta on Sunday, casting doubt on his readiness to perform in big moments.
The ability is there.
He carried the ball 10 times for 44 yards and had five catches in his 2012 debut on Sunday, but costly turnovers negated most of that. He's creating a reputation that will be hard to shake now or in the future.
It's not time for San Diego to move on, but this is definitely something to monitor. If it doesn't resolve itself, the Chargers should search for a more reliable option out of the backfield.