Is the New Depth Chart in San Diego the Beginning of the End for Ryan Mathews?

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystOctober 3, 2012

If there’s one drawback of fantasy football and the NFL draft, it’s the expectations. First-round picks are expected to produce immediately and never get hurt. The problem with that kind of thinking is that it ignores many important aspects of the game. Pass-blocking is a common thing that young running backs need to learn before becoming every-down players.

Ryan Mathews has had his own struggles with pass-blocking, injuries and fumbles, and now he finds himself behind Jackie Battle on the team’s official depth chart. This news makes a fantasy football owner grumble and the fans in San Diego sigh.

The apparent demotion begs the question: Is this the beginning of the end for Mathews in San Diego?

Mathews is a talented player, and with Mike Tolbert leaving in free agency this offseason, 2012 was supposed to be his year. Mathews then broke his clavicle in the preseason and missed the first two games.

When Mathews returned in Week 3, he had a key fumble in the red zone that prompted general manager A.J. Smith to comment on how he handles fumblers (via Kevin Acee, U-T San Diego). In Week 4, Mathews was benched in favor of Battle and didn't get many carries until the Chargers had secured the victory.

It would seem a strong message is being sent to Mathews. That would make sense, except the Norv Turner insists that is not the case. Via Ricky Henne on the team's official website, Turner said:

Everyone thinks it is to send the guy a message, but the best thing for us in the Kansas City game was to start Jackie Battle and give him and our offense a chance to get into some rhythm. On a feel when it was the right time, we wanted to give Ryan the opportunity to be a part of it. As the game went on he became a big part of it. He understands the importance of taking care of the ball. He’s not negligent. I don’t think there is anyone that works any harder. He had a bad play in the Atlanta game but I do believe that we’re going to get past that.

Mathews is talented, he's not negligent and he works hard. So what’s the problem? I think the key to Mathews’ demotion is represented pretty well in the final sentence of Turner’s statement: "...I do believe that we’re going to get past (the fumbling issues).”

The Chargers can’t afford to have Mathews fumble the ball to the other team, particularly in the red zone. Until Mathews corrects whatever issue he is having with ball security, he’s going to continue to lose carries to Battle.

The Chargers are going to give Battle more carries in the red zone, and it makes sense to have him protect Philip Rivers on passing plays as well. Battle is a superior to Mathews in pass protection, although Mathews has improved in that area over the past few years.

For now, the Chargers are content giving it to Mathews in low-pressure situations between the 20s and having Rivers throw the ball to pick up yardage in the red zone. It doesn't help Mathews’ case that Battle is averaging 5.1 yards per carry to his 4.4 yards. After all, talent isn't everything, and Battle has been the more productive back so far this season.

Still, Mathews is much more talented than Battle and should have no problem getting his carries back once the team trusts him again. The Chargers won’t be able to keep Mathews totally off the field even if he has a fumbling issue.

With two more years left on Mathews’ contract, it’s a little early to speculate on Matthews' fate with San Diego. The Chargers don’t have a running back talented enough for them to consider moving on, but if Mathews can’t correct his issue and handle the bulk of the carries, the team might start looking for his eventual replacement.

Maybe the Chargers didn’t mean to send a message to Mathews with this latest move, but that doesn’t mean a message wasn’t sent. One message came through loud and clear: Fix the ball security issues or lose opportunities. And losing opportunities can eventually lead to losing your job if issues persist. That’s just how things work in the NFL.