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Can Melvin Gordon Become the Chargers' Next LaDainian Tomlinson?

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistAugust 19, 2015

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SAN DIEGO — In the Southern California summer sun, Melvin Gordon takes the football from Philip Rivers in his midsection and steps hard into the gap between center and left guard. An unimpeded linebacker reads the play perfectly and moves to the same hole. He has Gordon lined up squarely. 

Then, with a flash to his left, Gordon is no longer where he was. The linebacker tries unsuccessfully to bring him down with a hand on a hip. Whoosh, Gordon is gone.

To the football aficionado, this is poetry in pads. You could watch a thousand running backs and not see one who can move like that, at least not as gracefully and forcefully as Gordon.

To a Chargers aficionado, it's not such an unfamiliar sight.

Nick Hardwick, the former Chargers center who retired in the offseason after 11 NFL years and is now the sideline reporter for the team's games on KIOZ-FM, noticed the similarity between Gordon and the great LaDainian Tomlinson. He noticed when he saw Gordon play at Wisconsin. And he noticed again when watching Gordon practice on the same field where the icon had practiced for nine years.

"They both have an ability to run up into the line of scrimmage, draw defenders in, accelerate, change direction and make a big positive run," said Hardwick, who blocked for Tomlinson for six seasons. "There are not many guys who have that ability, to be able to go from reading a play to accelerating at full speed with a flip of the hips. It's a beautiful thing to watch. That's why LT is going to be in the Hall of Fame."

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Gordon has not drawn many comparisons to Tomlinson, because for the most part, their styles are very different. At their respective combines, the 6'1", 215-pound Gordon measured three inches taller and six pounds lighter than Tomlinson. Gordon is a long-strider; Tomlinson was a compact, explosive runner.

Rivers sees more of Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles in Gordon than Tomlinson.

But Gordon, who represents the hope of the Chargers, and Tomlinson, who represents the history, share that one transcendent ability.

"That's the part I really liked about him, the quick little jump cuts he makes," Tomlinson said. "It really is a gift—the ability at the last moment to move your body to make a guy get just his arm on you instead of his whole body into your body, or to soften the blow. Not many guys can do that. I was able to do it. And it's something I've seen over and over from Melvin."

Greeting visitors as they enter the lobby of Chargers Park is a large display case featuring Tomlinson's jersey, a statue of him and a couple of footballs. With one, he scored his 100th career touchdown. With the other, he gained his 10,000th yard.

Tomlinson the reporter/analyst for NFL Network shows up at the Chargers facility from time to time, but Tomlinson the running back has been gone for five seasons now. Still, you see "Tomlinson" everywhere in the stands, as his jersey remains one of the most popular with fans.

Not many runners could replace Tomlinson, who scored more rushing touchdowns than every player in NFL history with the exception of Emmitt Smith. Shortly after Tomlinson signed with the Jets in 2010, the Chargers used the 12th pick in the draft on running back Ryan Mathews.

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Unlike Tomlinson, who was a force from his first game, Mathews sputtered as a rookie and failed to lead the Chargers in rushing. In his five years in San Diego, he had some moments. He was most effective during the 2013 season. But a series of injuries forced him to miss 20 games in his Chargers career, and he never had a sustained, consistent impact before leaving the team as a free agent and signing with the Eagles last March.

In the LT years (2001-09), the Chargers had a top-10 rushing offense six times. In the post-LT years, they never have had a top-10 rushing offense. What's more, the Chargers ran the ball only 42 percent of the time after Tomlinson left town.

"We had a couple of good years with Mathews," Hardwick said. "But we never had those game-changing runs. Those are the ones you want to see later in the game when the yards really stack up, when you get a 45-yard touchdown or 60-yard touchdown run and close the game out that way. Those are the kind of runs I think this team is looking for from Melvin Gordon.

"If you look at our team post-LT, overall, you'd say we had Philip Rivers. That was the option, and you wanted him to run his show and whatever play he saw fit, you let him call it and see how it would work."

Denis Poroy/Associated Press

On draft day last May, Rivers got a tip from the Chargers office. The team was hoping Gordon would slip to it. And so was Rivers. The Chargers were drafting 17th but were getting antsy with the 49ers on the clock at 15. General manager Tom Telesco made the decision to move up two spots and give the 49ers a 2015 fourth-round pick and a 2016 fifth-round pick in order to get their man.

The trade was part of a greater movement to get back to running the ball the way the team did in the LT days. In the offseason, the Chargers also signed massive free-agent guard Orlando Franklin and made acquisitions to improve the depth of the offensive line.

Rivers, who has been around long enough to recognize that a strong running game will make him a more effective quarterback, said the object is offensive balance.

"When we have had a 50-50 balance over the years, we've been at our best," he said. "There also have been years when we haven't been balanced but still have been pretty dang good on offense. So we have to do what we have to do to win the game. But the threat of being balanced can make us better.

"It's the threat of the run. We were handing it to LT a lot in those years. That's obviously gaining yards. But when it's always in the back of the minds of the defenders—they are handing it off, so let's get down and be aggressive—that's really when I feel like the biggest thing that helps us get chunk plays. That's been the hardest thing for us: play-action, chunk plays. We had those for a long time around here when LT was back there. Now we haven't had as many. Hopefully that element will be back."

Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich has no-huddle roots and has been part of some historically great passing efforts. But he is all-in on the run game as well.

"You want to be able to impose your will," he said. "That means run when you want to run, pass when you want to pass. I want to run it as much as we can. When you have a guy like Melvin, you want to run the ball at least 25 times in a game."

How many of those carries Gordon will earn remains to be seen. The Chargers have a deep stable of backs that includes Branden Oliver, who led the team in rushing a year ago, Danny Woodhead, who excels in the backfield on passing downs, and former first-round pick Donald Brown. But Gordon was not drafted to provide moral support from the sidelines.

Though head coach Mike McCoy long has been a proponent of the running back-by-committee approach, it is not unreasonable to think Gordon could average 20 rushes a game as a rookie, according to those who know.

Everyone says he is pleased with Gordon's progress thus far, but no one wants him to feel hurried. Gordon is transitioning from Wisconsin's power-blocking scheme to the Chargers' zone-blocking scheme, so he still is trying to figure some things out.

His more significant adjustment probably will be in the passing game. Gordon rushed for 4,915 yards in college, but he caught passes for only 228 yards. Though his hands were scrutinized in the predraft process, evidence suggests he can catch well enough. His receiving stats seem to reveal more about the Wisconsin offense than they do about his ability to be a part of the passing game.

Andy Manis/Associated Press

Gordon said he caught a lot of balls and was frequently split out in practice at Wisconsin but acknowledges doing it in a game is different. He also said the most difficult aspect of the playbook has been the protections. The Chargers are known to have some of the most ambitious protection adjustments in the NFL.

"Everything we've asked our backs to do, he can do," McCoy said. "He's going to be more comfortable over time with a lot of the things we're doing. But I think he can play in nickel. And Philip can help. The way he is, as he drops back sometimes he's telling the backs what to do. If he has a sense they are going in the wrong direction, he corrects them. I've never seen anything like it."

The Chargers once were spoiled by a running back who did everything well and arguably was the most versatile back of his era. He led the AFC in receptions one year. He even was a threat to pass the ball.

Gordon's new teammates and coaches are cautious about referencing Tomlinson in a conversation about the rookie. They don't want to burden him with the feeling that he will be a bust if he does not merit a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Even Tomlinson realizes the shadow he casts can be ominous.

"I think it hurt Ryan Mathews early in his career because everyone wanted to compare him to me, and he tried to live up to those expectations," he said. "It just didn't work. So I try to stay away from those comparisons with the rookies, especially San Diego guys, because it is a lot of pressure on these young guys to try to fill the shoes I left in San Diego."

Gordon was an LT fan in Wisconsin before migrating west. When he played football video games, he played as the Chargers so he could be LT on the screen. Gordon said when the Chargers cut Tomlinson in an acrimonious divorce, he took it personally.

"I was hurt," Gordon, who was 16 at the time, said. "As a kid, you don't know it's a business. I looked at it like, 'How could the Chargers let him go?'"

In June, the Chargers held a press conference to announce they will retire Tomlinson's No. 21 at halftime of the Nov. 22 game against the Chiefs and induct him into the Chargers Hall of Fame.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

The press conference was timed so current players such as Gordon could attend. Gordon sat in the first row.

"As a young guy coming in, seeing that, you want the same thing," he said. "I was honored to have been there and watched that. There are a lot of running backs all over the world who would have loved to have been in that seat there. That was a special moment for me."

In the course of the press conference, Tomlinson turned to Gordon and offered some advice. He told him to be patient and to always remember how long it took to build Rome.

Tomlinson has offered advice privately as well. He gave Gordon his cellphone number early on and told him to call whenever. Tomlinson has been in his ear about making sure he knows the playbook, about looking at his performances objectively and about just trying to win the day every day. Gordon says he has taken all of it to heart.

Instead of being intimidated by Tomlinson's presence, Gordon is embracing it.

"I know I'll never be LT, no matter how hard I try," he said. "I can only be Melvin Gordon, and that's what I'll try to be."

From time to time, Gordon will check out some old clips of Tomlinson. He is blown away by the stiff arm. He's wowed by the lateral quickness. But there is one other thing that stands out.

"He has a one-two cut move he does in the hole that I kind of like," Gordon said.

Chargers aficionados have seen that move.

It is a move that could connect two eras and bring an offense back in time.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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