The year was 2014, and Melvin Gordon was soaring to become college football’s running back darling. He took that title from an injured Todd Gurley and ran with it. Then he just kept running.
Gordon led the nation in rushing yards (2,587) and touchdowns (29) during his final year of separating defenders from their jock straps for the Wisconsin Badgers. He still trails only Barry Sanders on the list of all-time best single-season rushing-yard totals.
Greatness seemed inevitable when Gordon broke the NCAA single-game rushing record with an absurd 408 yards in 2014 against Nebraska. His mark stood for all of one week, but rushing for 400-plus yards shouldn’t be possible in any world not manipulated by a video game controller.
We figured Gordon was on his way to NFL stardom after his sparkling 2014 season. We continued assuming that when he finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Then we assumed some more when, along with Gurley, he was one of two first-round running backs selected during the 2015 draft. That came after two straight years of the position being abandoned in the opening round.
Now, as the 2016 season approaches, we’re not assuming anymore. We’re waiting.
Gordon’s rookie year looked like what would happen if a truck carrying only large containers of salad dressing rolled over on the highway. Still, there’s reason for hope.
It’s unfair to apply the "bust" label after one season, and I won’t be doing that here.
Gordon entered the league amid towering expectations after the San Diego Chargers selected him with the 15th overall pick. He wasn’t just a first-round pick. He was also coveted so highly that the Chargers traded up two spots to secure him, dealing a fourth-round pick in 2015 and a fifth-round pick in 2016 to the San Francisco 49ers.
Many viewed Gordon as an instant cure for the giant, immovable ground fungus growing in San Diego’s backfield. In 2014, the Chargers scored only six rushing touchdowns while averaging 3.4 yards per carry and 85.4 per game.
Instead of injecting life into a dormant backfield, Gordon made fans reach for Gravol. He went from averaging 7.8 yards per carry over four collegiate seasons to a lowly 3.5 as a rookie.
What happened? Well, injuries happened—and not just to Gordon.
Injuries can sometimes feel like an excuse, but in this case, they’re a crippling fact after Gordon spent much of his season running behind replacement bodies.
|A black and blue Chargers O-line in 2015|
|Offensive lineman||Missed games in 2015|
That’s 19 missed games spread between three core offensive linemen.
The Chargers were forced to use 24 different offensive line combinations throughout the season. Continuity breeds cohesion among the large men tasked with keeping other large men away from quarterbacks and running backs. When a team doesn’t have it because of injuries, spiraling performances often follow.
Having tackle King Dunlap along with guards Orlando Franklin and D.J. Fluker back and in one piece is the easiest way to boost Gordon’s second-year production potential. More critically, O-line competence will help unearth Gordon’s inner elusiveness.
He has plenty of it, but even the slipperiest running backs can’t do much when they’re getting hit deep in the backfield and running lanes are either fleeting mirages or not there at all.
He’s only one year removed from having the downhill, one-cut running power to post a nation-leading 1,229 yards after contact. He also created 74 missed tackles (10 more than any other running back) and led his position with 40 runs for 15-plus yards, according to College Football Focus.
We saw speed and power in flashes during his rookie season. Despite a cellar-dwelling per-carry average, he finished with 34 missed tackles created as a runner, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranked tied for ninth.
The foundation was there, but the results were sorely lacking during his first professional season. That can’t all be shrugged off because of a weak offensive line.
The Chargers gained fewer than four yards on 61.3 percent of their rushing attempts in 2015, as NFL.com’s Marcas Grant noted. Sure, Gordon often wasn’t given much room to work with in his attempts to improve that percentage, but even when he was afforded something, the 23-year-old was frequently reluctant to take it.
Gordon’s natural instinct as a rookie was often to bounce outside, especially early in the season.
His attempts at home run swings did lead to several chunk gains, including runs for 27, 23 and 25 yards over the nine games prior to San Diego’s Week 10 bye. But during the same stretch, he lumbered his way to six games when his longest run was under 15 yards and three when it fell into single digits.
There was an air of indecisiveness around Gordon, which became glaring in Week 9 against the Chicago Bears. They fielded a run defense in 2015 that ended the year ranked 22nd while allowing 120.9 yards per game and 4.5 per carry.
Instead of bursting toward openings, Gordon hesitated and waited for explosive-play opportunities that never came. His longest run of the evening went for five yards. On his other 10 attempts, he averaged 2.6 yards.
Sometimes the problem isn’t an inability to break free. Those game-breaking moments will come. The issue is an unwillingness to accept the nominal but important smaller gains.
We can see that on a fourth-quarter run against the Bears. On 1st-and-10, he was greeted with this view while receiving the handoff for an off-tackle run that flowed to his left:
There was a hole emerging—one that could soon be filled depending on how well center Trevor Robinson took care of Bears linebacker Jonathan Anderson. Gordon also saw a flash of color when outside linebacker Lamarr Houston poked his head into the hole.
The opportunity for a significant gain had already been erased, a familiar tale for this leaky offensive line. But there was still a chance to turn this play into forward-moving progress.
Gordon needed to identify the emerging crease, plant his foot in the ground immediately and then power his way upfield between the center and tackle. Then, with his ample speed and elusiveness, he may have had a chance to bust through an arm tackle.
Heck, he could have fallen forward for a few yards. Instead, Gordon halted his momentum by stopping and planting in the backfield.
As he has so many times, Gordon tried to recover and bounce to the outside, but his engine had stalled. He was swarmed for no gain.
Wandering in the backfield caused issues all season for Gordon. He failed to score a single touchdown as a rookie and can only rise now.
The faith in his sophomore turnaround should go beyond the health of the Chargers offensive line. Gordon showed some life late in 2015 when he averaged 4.3 yards per carry in Week 12 and then 4.6 in Week 13, with the latter coming against the Denver Broncos and their third-ranked run defense. He also engaged his slippery mode by generating seven missed tackles against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
He’s healthy now after knee surgery, and Gordon spent part of his offseason working with Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to minimize his fumbles. The 2014 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year had a case of buttery hands as a rookie and fumbled six times on just 184 carries.
If he corrects that problem, Gordon has the skill set to excel as an NFL running back. His talent didn’t vanish. He didn’t forget how to accelerate past defenders or how to abruptly change direction.
He did, however, learn that what’s there in front of you in the NFL is often what you’re going to get.