The Chargers Don't Need Melvin Gordon to Win the AFC

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistSeptember 5, 2019

Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon watches from the sideline during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Steven Senne/Associated Press

Barring an unexpected eleventh-hour development, Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon III won't be in the lineup when the Los Angeles Chargers open the 2019 season against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. While that unfortunate reality might concern those who fear the oft-snakebitten Bolts will once again fall victim to Murphy's law, Gordon's absence is unlikely to cost the Chargers in the win column. 

Make no mistake, a team that tied for the best record in the AFC with 12 wins in 2018 is a Super Bowl contender and a potential conference champion with or without Gordon. 

The organization sure doesn't seem worried. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported Saturday that the team has granted the disgruntled 26-year-old permission to seek a trade, while Chargers general manager Tom Telesco has informed Gordon and his representatives that contract negotiations will be put on hold until after the 2019 campaign, per The Athletic's Daniel Popper

This is a team that's fighting for a new fanbase in a new home, a team with an aging quarterback and a closing Super Bowl window. If it thought it needed Gordon to win a championship, it wouldn't be willing to play this game of chicken. The Chargers, though, are smart enough to realize that giving a running back a pay raise and a contract extension is likely to do more harm than good to the franchise. 

Chargers GM Tom Telesco isn't caving for Melvin Gordon.
Chargers GM Tom Telesco isn't caving for Melvin Gordon.Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It's apparent that might soon become the case with the Chargers' Los Angeles neighbor, the Rams, who handed star back Todd Gurley II a four-year, $57.5 million extension last offseason but should already regret that decision. Gurley, 25, was good last year, but so was signed-off-the-street backup C.J. Anderson when Gurley missed time down the stretch with a knee injury. 

The frequently discarded Anderson went over 120 yards in three consecutive games, including a playoff victory over the Dallas Cowboys. The Rams won all of those contests with 30-plus points, and they went on a Super Bowl run even though Gurley was either inactive or ineffective in six of their last seven regular-season/playoff games. 

On top of that, his reportedly arthritic knee continues to be a tremendous red flag entering 2019.

When the Chargers look at Gordon, they see an older yet significantly less accomplished running back than Gurley. They see a player at an extremely devalued position who remains under contract and is slated to earn the second-highest base salary in the NFL at his position in 2019, according to Spotrac.

They also see a player who missed a quarter of the 2018 regular season due to injury; who has made it through just one 16-game campaign; who has rushed for 1,000 yards just once; and whose career yards-per-attempt average of 4.04 ranks 23rd among 37 qualified backs since 2015.

What's more, they see a player whose 5.1 yards-per-attempt average in 2018 was trumped by that of his backup, the much younger and much cheaper Austin Ekeler, who proved his rookie average of 5.5 was no fluke with a rate of 5.2 last season. The 24-year-old Ekeler's YPA remained in that range this preseason as he worked in place of Gordon. 

"We love Melvin, but we're going to go with what we've got," quarterback Philip Rivers said early in training camp, per Matt Szabo of the Los Angeles Times. "It's a pretty dang good group."

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Considering those circumstances, one might be more inclined to view Gordon as a potential cap casualty instead of a strong candidate for a new contract. The Chargers know that even if he were to return this season and crush it, they have the franchise tag in their back pocket and intriguing potential replacements in Ekeler as well as second-year seventh-round pick Justin Jackson, who flashed as a rookie. 

Those two carried the load at running back when Gordon was hurt last season, and the Los Angeles offense didn't miss a beat. In fact, against slightly stronger opposing defenses, the Gordon-less Bolts averaged more points per game than they did with him in the lineup, and they were a perfect 4-0 in those outings. 

Here's a look at their numbers with Gordon in 2018:

  • Record: 8-4
  • Points per game: 26.7
  • Yards per play: 6.3
  • Average PPG rank of opposing defenses: 20th

And here's how the team fared without Gordon:

  • Record: 4-0
  • Points per game: 27.0
  • Yards per play: 6.2
  • Average PPG rank of opposing defenses: 19th

Without Gordon against a top-10 Tennessee Titans defense in October, the Chargers offense averaged a season-best 7.8 yards per play. Without him on the road for a critical prime-time December meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers, they scored 33 points and converted six of 11 third downs against the league's sixth-rated defense. 

That's a small sample, but it's enough to suggest the Chargers are doing the right thing and will be OK regardless of how or when Gordon's holdout ends. A team that will soon have to pay Rivers, Hunter Henry, Melvin Ingram and Keenan Allen (all have contracts that expire in 2020 or 2021) would be silly to mortgage the future to reward Gordon. They have all the leverage, and it's obvious they're aware of that reality. 

Yet Gordon has no immediate plans to report to the Chargers, according to ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler. He'll have to show up by Week 11 to accrue a season and qualify for free agency in March, but the Chargers can succeed without him beyond that, as well. 

Austin Ekeler can replace Melvin Gordon.
Austin Ekeler can replace Melvin Gordon.Harry How/Getty Images

The Chargers are 18-5 dating back to Week 11 of the 2017 season, a record that stands alone as the best in the NFL during that stretch.

They finally overcame the division rival Kansas City Chiefs with a thrilling road triumph last December, and that win came just two weeks after that crucial victory in Pittsburgh. They ran into the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots buzzsaw in the divisional round of last year's playoffs, but their ninth-ranked defense embarrassed the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card Round before that. 

We know they can beat the Chiefs, and they did so sans Gordon last season. Ditto for the Steelers. Mt. Patriot will remain a tough climb, but it's been 14 years since a team successfully defended a Super Bowl win. Quarterback Tom Brady is battling Father Time at 42, Rob Gronkowski and Trent Brown are gone and stalwart center David Andrews is out for the year. 

The Cleveland Browns look good on paper but have a rookie head coach and will be facing a lot of pressure and even more change. The Ravens suffered several major losses in the offseason and will need a big jump from quarterback Lamar Jackson, who was annihilated by the Bolts' defense in January.

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - JANUARY 06: Quarterback Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens in action against the Los Angeles Chargers during the AFC Wild Card Playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 06, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Everybody in the AFC South is riddled with question marks, especially with the Indianapolis Colts losing franchise quarterback Andrew Luck and the Houston Texans coming off a tumultuous, arguably humiliating week. 

The entire conference is vulnerable.

This organization isn't stupid. The Chargers saw that their offense excelled without Gordon in 2018, that the Rams were just as potent without Gurley, that the Steelers averaged more points and yards per game without Le'Veon Bell in 2018 than they did with him in 2017. 

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2018, but the Giants offense still stunk. Seattle Seahawks first-round pick Rashaad Penny rushed for 100 yards just once as a rookie, but the Seahawks had the league's top-rated running game thanks mainly to the presence of second-year seventh-round pick Chris Carson. 

Barkley, Joe Mixon and Christian McCaffrey all ranked in the top 10 in rushing as part of losing teams in 2018. Meanwhile, the AFC's top-seeded squad, the Chiefs, had the third-highest-scoring offense in NFL history despite losing 2017 rushing champion Kareem Hunt midway through the season.

Last December, Anderson (Gurley's replacement) and Damien Williams (Hunt's replacement), were among only seven qualified running backs to average more than 5.4 yards per rush. 

A team featuring an All-Pro running back hasn't won a Super Bowl this century, while only three of this century's 18 Super Bowl-winning teams (New England in 2004, Baltimore in 2012 and Seattle in 2013) even had a Pro Bowl back.

In this day and age, running backs are products of their offensive environments. Teams rarely depend on backs for their success. Backs often depend on teams for theirs. 

That's why the Chargers are still favored to win their season opener by nearly a touchdown, per Caesars, even without Gordon and tougher-to-replace All-Pro safety Derwin James. 

They might eventually need James to get over that Super Bowl hurdle, but without Gordon they can survive—and probably even thrive. 

                

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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