After Mike Tolbert departed in free agency, the third-year pro appeared poised to become the featured back for the Chargers, only to see a fractured clavicle on his first preseason carry derail those plans before they ever got rolling.
Then, when Mathews finally did return to action in the season's third game, a costly red-zone fumble led to Mathews losing the job of starter to veteran Jackie Battle and it appeared that Mathews might find himself mired in a timeshare in San Diego.
Now, after a breakout performance of sorts in last week's loss to the New Orleans Saints, Mathews appears to have regained his featured back role. Head coach Norv Turner was effusive in his praise of Mathews recently according to Ryan Schuler of the team's website.
“Ryan was outstanding,” Chargers head coach Norv Turner said. “Everything I’ve said about him in the offseason, everytime he’s had adversity, he’s come back stronger. People want to count him out or say, ‘Hey, you can’t count on this guy,’ but he’s come back stronger.”
Now, with the 25-year-old seemingly back atop the depth chart where he belongs, the question becomes not only how he can stay there but how he can better his 1,091 rushing yards from last season and make his second straight visit to the Pro Bowl.
It's certainly not a matter of talent, as Mathews displayed plenty of that in gashing the Saints for 139 total yards on only 18 touches, running with a blend of power, vision and speed that only a handful of running backs in the National Football League possess.
Frankly, there are likely only two things that can keep Mathews from making another trip to the Pro Bowl, one of which isn't even really under his control.
The one that is under his control is the issue that got him benched for Battle a few weeks ago. It doesn't matter how talented a running back is, if that running back puts the ball on the ground he's going to find himself riding the bench eventually.
Mathews has now fumbled 11 times over his two-plus years in the NFL, losing five. By weight of comparison Battle's fumble total over his 226 career carries is a big, fat goose-egg.
Sure, there's no denying that Mathews is much more talented than Battle, but there's also no denying that the San Diego coaching staff wants a back on the field that can hang onto the rock, and general manager A.J. Smith didn't mince words about the issue when speaking with Kevin Acee of U-T San Diego.
“Extremely talented players like Ryan get multiple opportunities to improve,” Smith continued. “What happens to fumblers is, first, they play less. Second, if it continues while they’re playing on a limited basis, then you don’t play for a while and you get to sit and think about it. Third, when you get the call to go back on the field and the fumbling continues, then you will be somebody else’s fumbler.”
The other matter really isn't something that Mathews can do anything about, but it's still a concern.
Mathews has now missed time due to injury in each of his three NFL seasons and while that's not a glaring aberration (especially for running backs), it's been enough to get Mathews the label of "injury prone" whether it's a fair assessment or not.
As I said though, there's not much that Ryan Mathews can do about the injuries. If the youngster wants to hang onto his role as lead back for the Bolts, realize his vast potential, and make the second of what could be many trips to Honolulu then all he can do is lower his head, hit the hole hard...
And hope that he doesn't fumble away the opportunity.
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