LaDainian Tomlinson. The most well known Charger of our time. After 9 seasons of a prolific career, a legend is replaced by a promising rookie in Ryan Mathews, who only wants to be like his predecessor, a tall if not near impossible order to follow. Holding the football between his number 24, he will carry a team that strives to balance a running game around superstar quarterback Philip Rivers. Lets begin this story with yesterday's 21-14 loss to the rival Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football.
7 minutes into the quarter. Driving from their own territory. First game of his NFL career and he's done good so far, but he still wants to break that long run. A lot is expected of him, and he wants the approval of his team and his fans. Snap is good, he takes the hand off, takes a few steps, and he's hit. The ball he was known to keep safe in college is now on the ground. The other team in red recovers. But its OK. The other team has yet to score a point, down by 20 points so far. You may be thinking, "what game was he watching?", but this isn't Ryan Mathews who you read about, its Tomlinson. That's right, in his first career game against the Washington Redskins 9 years and 5 days ago, L.T. fumbled the ball 7 minutes into the 3rd quarter. With quarterback Doug Flutie throwing just 18 times, Tomlinson had to run the ball 36 times for an average of 3.1 yards per carry to reach his total 113 yards and 2 touchdowns. But with Philip Rivers, 36 carries for Mathews seems totally unreasonable today, more so with the Chiefs up by 14 points. Mathews forgot the most important rule of running with the football, and that was making sure you actually have the football while you run. With a defender draped over his back, Mathews made the young mistake of trying to drag a 250 pound linebacker gripping your ball-carrying arm in wet weather. The result was a costly turnover that gave the rival team a 14-7 lead that they would only increase to hold on to a win. Like Tomlinson, Mathews failed to help his team to a victory in week one. So how did Mathews compare to the still active legend in New York? Take a look below.
19 Carries, 75 yards, 3.9 ypc, 0 TDs, 1 Fumble, 1 reception for 2 yards
11 Carries, 62 yards, 5.6 ypc, 0 TDs, 0 Fumbles, 2 receptions for 16 yards
Its fairly obvious who had the better day. Yes, Tomlinson arguably has the better line, but he also played a much tougher run defense.
So where was Mathews better?
4,7,4,1,8,2,2,2,15-fumble,2,3,3,2,4,3,2,3,5,3. Thats how Bam Bam's 19 carries went. Not a single negative yardage play. The O-line got good initial push and no one lost a block, at least not during the first second. If the blockers can stay on their man, and the Fullback or Tight end can seal off a Linebacker or Safety, lots of those 5-10 yard runs can turn into 15 or 20 yard gains. Tamba Hali, probably the Chiefs best defensive player, and Tyson Jackson were on about 5 or 6 occasions able to collapse their point of attack and close down running lanes for Ryan Mathews. Usually those were the few runs where Hester and Tolbert (and Wilson and McMichael) struggled to get a perfect block, which led to Mathews not getting the extra 3 or 4 yards, but like last year, the O-line and secondary blockers will surely improve as the season goes on. But for now, Bam Bam must protect the ball better, and not default sack Rivers by knocking the ball loose. Lets take a look at some of Tomlinson's runs.
2,21,1,5,5,3,-1,1,1,18,6. Those were L.T.'s 11 carries. The biggest thing you'll notice are the one and two yard runs where Mathews was able to pick up 2 and 3. However, the Chiefs don't have Ray Lewis on their defense. Many of us were watching most of the Jets-Ravens matchup and saw Lewis on 3 occasions blow up the Fullback (once) and Matt Slausen (twice) to stuff Tomlinson. Haloti Ngata, who is as disruptive as Jamal Williams in his prime, also collapsed the running lane on two occasions to keep L.T. from shooting through his lane. When L.T. did break through, he showed balance he didn't seem to have last year, probably due to his ankle injury I still believe he downplayed. Had Mathews been in Baltimore, he probably would have picked up a good 16 to 22 more total yards than Tomlinson, but who's to know if he would fumble against a tougher opponent, or even run for fewer yards due to a lack of experience or patience he will develop over the next few seasons. Conversely, Tomlinson's fumbles over the last 4 seasons in San Diego can be counted on one hand, and its likely the Chiefs would not have taken a lead on a play where he would not have fumbled. His superior receiving skills should have also turned a dropped pass into a short gain on one play in particular.
Many arguments can be made for and against one runner or the other, and the comments section may prove that. But lets keep focus on what's important, and that's the development of the next great running back to don the lightning bolts. I think he will become great. And with Rivers at QB, that's more than you really need from him.
In conclusion, Mathews should not be discouraged from his performance. Yes, his turnover proved costly, but it is overshadowed by Special teams flaws and at least 6 catchable balls missed by Charger receivers that could have turned the 21-14 score around against the Chiefs. Playing at home on a dry field should give Mathews motivation to play harder, and more importantly, smarter on his way to his first 100 yard game before a joyous home crowd.