During my training camp visit to San Diego in early August, I was struck by how much the organization was looking forward to seeing Ryan Mathews play in 2012.
I heard more than one person in the organization say that Mathews was “on a mission” to become a force the team could rely on.
Mathews was among those looking forward to seeing him become a complete tailback. When talking to the third-year player, I sensed someone who was itching to get on the field and show he is the player the Chargers committed so much to two years ago. The Chargers had big plans for Mathews in all phases of the offense.
That was seven weeks ago.
Now, finally, Mathews will get his chance to become an integral part of the San Diego offense when the Chargers (2-0) play Sunday against the visiting Atlanta Falcons (2-0). Mathews has been practicing with contact since last Thursday.
The Chargers hope his first regular-season carry goes better than his first preseason tote. Mathews broke his clavicle on his first preseason carry Aug. 9 against Green Bay. The original diagnosis was that he’d miss four to six weeks. In the end, caution won. While Mathews pushed to play in the season opener against Oakland, the Chargers put the reins on him. They did not want to rush the player who has been dealing with injuries since his Fresno State days.
The Chargers want Mathews to run the ball up to 25 times a game and to catch passes out of the backfield this season. They need him to stay healthy.
Mathews will probably be eased back into action, but in the next few weeks, we will finally see the plan unfold. The Chargers traded a huge package to move up 16 spots to take Mathews with the 12th overall pick in 2010, and they think Mathews has shown enough in his two seasons to take the next step.
Mathews made the Pro Bowl last season after he ran for 1,091 yards. In his short NFL career, he is averaging an impressive 4.7 yards per carry. Still, Mathews feels he has plenty to prove. He knows some people think he gets injured too often, and he knows some people wonder whether he was worth San Diego's trading up for him.
“I know I’ve made strides but I haven’t completely broken out yet, and I know people are waiting to see that happen,” Mathews said shortly before his injury. “I look forward to show the mission I am on and show what I can do this season.”
Mathews acknowledges he feels better going into this season because he no longer worries about being the man who replaced LaDainian Tomlinson. The Chargers cut Tomlinson in February 2010 and chose Mathews to be Tomlinson's replacement.
“There was a lot of pressure in my first year and even a little last year because of what LT was to people around here,” Mathews said. “But that pressure is gone. I think I've shown I’m my own player.”
His teammates fully believe Mathews is his own player. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said he saw Mathews make great strides last season and develop into a confident player. Although Mathews is no longer trying to replace Tomlinson, ironically, one of the biggest examples of his coming into his own is something that reminds Rivers of Tomlinson.
“Ryan is becoming a really good practice player, and that was what stood out to me about LT when I was a rookie,” Rivers said. “I was so stunned to see LT practice. He finished runs in practice so he’d be used to it in games, and that’s what Ryan is doing now. It’s all part of the process.”
Now that Mathews is healthy again, he can add a dimension to a San Diego offense that has clicked in the first two games. The Chargers used several backs with Mathews out, without much success until Jackie Battle broke through in the second half of a 38-10 win over Tennessee on Sunday. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. thinks Mathews can be the special running force the Chargers thought he would be before his injury. Williamson thinks the Chargers are right about Mathews. He can complete their offense.
“He could impact this offense significantly,” Williamson said. “[Coach] Norv Turner wants everything to really go through the run game, preferably with one bell-cow running back. Mathews certainly can be that type of running back and has also developed quite a bit in the passing game. But San Diego also wants to consistently take shots downfield, and they might have the longest and deepest route tree in the NFL. Getting defenses to honor the run with Mathews should help quite a bit.”
It may be later than they hoped, but finally the San Diego Chargers can see what they have in their top tailback.