Ryan Mathews Is Finally Becoming an Elite NFL Running Back

Nate LoopFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2013

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 29:  Running back Ryan Mathews
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Ryan Mathews is no stranger to elite expectations. Elite performances, however, have proven to be somewhat elusive during the first four years of Mathews' career.

As a first-round draft pick and the heir apparent to the incomparable Ladainian Tomlinson, Mathews has been in the spotlight since the moment he held up a Chargers No. 1 jersey and forced a nervous smile for the cameras.

Nagging injuries, a persistent fumbling problem and inconsistent play have all hindered Mathews in his pursuit of becoming a top-tier NFL running back, a sentiment he expressed this summer via Kevin Acee of the U-T San Diego:

"I got a lot of people just frustrated with my performance in the last few years," he said. "They expected me to come in and do big things. And I expect myself to."

In the second half of the 2013 season, however, Mathews has been no stranger to big things, as he has racked up 775 yards and five touchdowns over the last eight games of the season, capped off yesterday with a career-high 144 yards in the Chargers' 27-24, playoff-clinching, overtime victory over the division rival Kansas City Chiefs.

Overall, his numbers may not be quite as impressive as they were in 2011, the only year he was voted to the Pro Bowl, but he is in a better position to succeed in the coming years than at any other time in his career.

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 12:  Running back Ryan Mathews #24 of the San Diego Chargers runs off the field after defeating the Denver Broncos 27-20 at Sports Authority Field Field at Mile High on December 12, 2013 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Justin Edmonds
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

After coming off a freakish 2012 season that saw him snap both of his collarbones like balsa wood, Mathews played a part in all 16 games this season. According to Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com, he was even listed as probable for yesterday's game, but he was able to suit up for the Chargers when they needed him most. The ability to play through injuries is a crucial trait and a strong sign Mathews is ready to take the leap into premier running back territory.

Mathews is also benefiting from a personnel masterstroke; the Chargers' offseason addition of running back Danny Woodhead has taken the pressure off of Mathews in the passing game, allowing him to focus on carrying the football.

As the year has worn on and Woodhead has racked up receptions—69 in all this season—Mathews has found himself climbing over the 20-carry threshold more often, a trend that the Chargers would be wise to continue into next year considering its success: The Bolts are 6-0 in games this season in which Mathews tops 20 carries. Combine that with the Pro Bowl-caliber play of resurgent quarterback Philip Rivers, and defenses will be hard-pressed to stop the hard-charging Mathews when Rivers calls his number.

Elite running backs also need to rack up touchdowns, something that Mathews struggled with until recently. After fumbling 10 times in his first two seasons, Mathews lost the trust of former Chargers head coach Norv Turner in the red zone—despite the erstwhile coach telling Michael Gehlken of the U-T San Diego he had "great trust" in him—and he saw limited action in that part of the field, a trend that continued into the beginning of this season under first-year head coach Mike McCoy.

This year, Mathews has fumbled just twice, losing one, and while he was often spelled by Ronnie Brown or Woodhead earlier in the season when the Chargers got past the 20-yard line, Mathews' carries have increased as he earns McCoy's trust. He has scored four times in the last six games, proving his readiness to handle the football in pressure situations. That trust should lead to more simple, yet still spectacular, scores like this athletic leap from Week 12 against the Chiefs, via NFL.com.

The second half of 2013 has shown Mathews is finally turning the corner and becoming a dominant running back. He turns 27 next season, and conditions couldn't be more favorable for his continued success. If Mathews truly is ready to establish himself as a premier running back in the coming years, next Sunday's playoff adventure in Cincinnati would be the perfect time and place for Mathews to showcase to the entire country how his reality has finally caught up to the expectations.

Nathaniel Loop is a new contributor to Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @Nate_Loop or check out Sidelines, where he is a Contributing Writer.