Ryan Mathews Producing at an Elite Level for the San Diego Chargers

Ian PhilipAnalyst IIIOctober 3, 2011

Seemingly only Norv Turner can stop Ryan Mathews at this point.
Seemingly only Norv Turner can stop Ryan Mathews at this point.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

If you asked the average fan who the best running back in the AFC is, you'd get responses like Maurice Jones-Drew from the Jacksonville Jaguars, Darren McFadden from the Oakland Raiders or Ray Rice from the Baltimore Ravens. However, what would you say if I threw the name Ryan Mathews from the San Diego Chargers into that group?

You'd think I was crazy right? Well, you'd be wrong.

Mathews has been forced to split time with Mike Tolbert, who is certainly not in the aforementioned elite group. That hasn't stopped Mathews from becoming the third-leading yard gainer from scrimmage, behind Matt Forte and McFadden at running back in the NFL after four weeks.

Mathews is just ahead of McFadden in yards per play (YPP), and just behind Forte, both of whom have more touches than Mathews.

Mathews has 80 touches for a total of 542 yards, or 6.8 YPP, and three touchdowns. McFadden has 90 touches for a total of 600 yards, or 6.7 YPP, and four touchdowns. Forte has 86 touches for a total of 634 yards, or 7.37 YPP, and two touchdowns.

Mathews now has five straight games of over 115 yards from scrimmage, and that's even with the silly "we have 1A and 1B at running back" philosophy of the Chargers.

Mathews is a complete running back.

His pass blocking was good once again against the Dolphins. He's a monster pass receiver, with an average of 13.4 yards per catch, a number that some wide receivers wish they had. On the ground, he's averaging 4.7 yards per carry (YPC).

His YPC average would likely be higher if he received more carries. Running backs always gain more yardage in later carries.

For example, Mathews rushed just six times for 16 yards in the first half against the Dolphins. That's only 2.66 YPC. In the second half, he ran 10 times for 65 yards, a  6.5 YPC average.

The same goes for Tolbert, and probably more so since he's a big running back. His 2.8 YPC on the season is really not helping the offense at all. His skills in the passing game are a notch below Mathews' talents as well.

The Chargers do not have the run blocking in place to have a "two-headed monster" in the running game. The need to either go with Tolbert or Mathews, and you know who I would pick.

Scoring points in the red zone is the key to beating good teams.

Tolbert shouldn't be anywhere near the huddle when the Chargers are in the red zone, because he is too slow to get to the outside, and the offensive line isn't whooping anybody's tail at the line of scrimmage. They really need Mathews' speed, versatility and unpredictability in that confined space where speed of the defense is magnified.

Don't be fooled by Mike Tolbert's leaping (and damn near fumbling) touchdown yesterday. The Bolts were almost totally ineffective in the red zone when taking Mathews out in favor of Tolbert. One doesn't need to be a coach to figure that out.

When will Norv Turner learn that Mathews is a far more dangerous weapon than Tolbert?

While no one can say that Mathews deserves to be called an elite back yet, he does deserve the chance to become one.

With names like Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, Fred Jackson and yes, Michael Turner showing up below Ryan Mathews on the stat sheet, it's time to remove the 'A' from '1A' and make this guy the undisputed go-to guy at the running back position.