San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews put together an impressive 2013 campaign after years of injuries and underperformance. With just one year left on Mathews’ rookie contract, the Chargers face a difficult dilemma—either extend their most talented runner, or let 2014 be the injury-prone back’s last season in San Diego.
But as each day passes and the Chargers sign or extend more running backs, the answer becomes clearer and clearer—no matter how well Mathews does in 2014, San Diego should part with him after this season.
This is a tougher argument to make than in recent years, particularly after Mathews had his best season yet as a Charger. He set career highs in 2013 with 285 carries for 1,255 rushing yards. He had six games where he rushed for 100 yards or more. He led the NFL in carries in the last five games of the regular season, according to NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling. He was the lead back on a Chargers team that relied on its ground game to help quarterback Philip Rivers flourish.
His regular season was impressive—but when the playoffs came around, Mathews broke down. He rushed a mere 18 times in the Chargers’ two postseason games due to an ankle injury.
This was inevitable. In his first three NFL seasons, Mathews missed 10 regular-season games. There were few instances where he was truly healthy. His presence for all of 2013 was due to a lack of carries at the beginning of the season, showing how ultra-cautious the Chargers were with Mathews.
For a supposed bell-cow running back, durability is just as vital as talent. And that’s where Mathews most noticeably falls short.
Limiting Mathews’ carries with a change-of-pace back, the type that Ronnie Brown was supposed to be last year, is the best way for the Chargers to keep him fresh for January while maintaining an effective running game throughout the regular season. Depth at the running back position is everything for a run-heavy team like San Diego, especially when its lead back is a frequent game-time decision.
But Brown’s true role on the team might be to succeed Mathews as the team’s lead back. General manager Tom Telesco was with the Colts when they selected Brown in the first round of the 2009 draft, and clearly he still fancies him—a three-year contract is a rarity for any running back not in the first-team All-Pro discussion.
Brown could also be the better running back, not just the more favored one. Mathews is a big back that gets four yards each carry without doing much in any other facet of the game—his 1,255 yards and 4.4 yards per carry aren’t terribly hard to replicate. Brown could easily surpass that as San Diego’s lead back. The statistics below, in a tweet from Bleacher Report’s Christopher Hansen, show just how much better Brown was in 2013.
Brown is Mathews’ biggest problem for his future in San Diego. The Chargers also extended running back Danny Woodhead for two more seasons (per Josh Katzowitz of CBS Sports), but Woodhead is a significantly different type of runner. If anything, he’s a receiver who just starts the play in the backfield. He isn’t going to be vulturing Mathews’ up-the-middle carries any time soon.
So the competition for the Chargers’ long-term plan at starting running back is between Mathews and Brown. We know what should happen if Brown looks more impressive in 2014—what if Mathews has a breakout season and Brown is left in the dust?
The answer doesn’t change—let Mathews walk.
Mathews will be 27 when the 2014 season ends, and it’s simply not worth it to pay top dollar for an eternal injury risk at an expendable position. This especially rings true when San Diego experiences a 2015 free-agency boom—Nick Hardwick, King Dunlap, Vincent Brown, Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright will all be off the books. The team will at least pursue re-signing Hardwick and Dunlap, two vital components of its offensive line.
San Diego’s addition of talented running back Marion Grice in the sixth round of the 2014 draft also complicates Mathews’ future. Grice won’t be a factor on offense in his rookie season, but with a year of development he will be a dynamic change-of-pace back. He could be the Donald Brown for, well, Donald Brown in 2015.
Grice was drafted. Woodhead was extended. Brown was signed. Mathews is the odd man out.
Recent comments from the Chargers indicate as much. In an interview with Mike Pomeranz, offensive coordinator Frank Reich said that Mathews is the “pounder” and “the primary workhorse.” Brown is the “big-play guy” and a guy that gives Mathews a breather every now and then.
That sounds like BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard in 2013, not an elite franchise back with a Toby Gerhart-esque backup.
And Telesco told radio station XEPRS-AM that Mathews is the team’s No. 1 back. Brown is there to give the team some different options and “a different style,” according to NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling. There was no mention of his future with the team, which is usually the first thing on a general manager’s mind.
Two of the most important staff members for a running back to win over don’t seem overly committed to Mathews past 2014. That’s not a good sign, and it will ultimately seal the running back’s fate with the Chargers.
Mathews was drafted to be LaDainian Tomlinson’s successor in San Diego. It has been evident for the past couple of years that he will never reach those heights. As long as he stays with the franchise, he’s the first-round pick that failed to live up to expectations. It’s best the Chargers move on, and they have already completed the steps necessary to do so.