I'm going to pose a few of these questions in a series of articles and let's be clear: I can't answer any of them. Training camp, preseason games, regular season games and potentially playoff games will provide the any chance at answers, but they are interesting to ask and reflect on while the NFL is on hiatus. This first one is certainly an intriguing one. Michael Gehlkin wrote an article in the San Diego Union Tribune recently on the subject and mentioned the names Emmit Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson and Ricky Williams in the lead. Those are all Norv Turner running backs that were used as workhorses when he was a Head Coach or an Offensive Coordinator. He goes on to mention others. In 2005 Turner gave LaMont Jordan 272 carries and 342 touches. In his final two years in Washington, 1999 and 2000, he gave Stephen Davis 290 and 332 respectively. In 1995 and 1996 Norv gave Terry Allen 338 and 347 carries before seeing him have to split time due to injuries. In 2006 he gave 312 carries to Frank Gore as the 49ers offensive coordinator. The history is certainly there.
However, history is in the past. In today's NFL, this sort of behavior just isn't done. Last year, only two RBs had over 300 carries (Maurice Jones-Drew, 343, and Michael Turner, 301). However, if you count total touches you get some heavier workloads. Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew both had over 350 touches, Arian Foster topped 325, Michael Turner, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson and Steven Jackson all picked up 300. Ryan Mathews had 222 carries and 50 receptions. He also played in less games (13) with Arian Foster (also 13) the only one previous mentioned who didn't start at least 15 games. However, if I compare that to 2006 (when Norv gave Frank Gore 312 carries with the 49ers), there were 10 RBs who had 300 carries including Larry Johnson who had 416. Three touched the ball over 400 times, 9 had over 350 touches and 14 had over 300 touches. If I go back to the 1990s and Norv's Redskins days, you see similar numbers as 2006. Anyway, the point is that Mathews, when compared to today's generation of RBs vs. the ones Norv had on previous teams, was already very close to workhorse status.
Of course, there were reasons he did not reach workhorse status in 2011. One reason was Mike Tolbert. The Chargers trusted Tolbert on 3rd down to help protect prized QB Philip Rivers. They trusted him at the goal line to escort the ball into the end zone. They trusted him to spell Mathews when a play or two did not go his way. This year's crop of running backs does not have a true Tolbert replacement. They don't have that kind of trust and they don't have the talent and history to garner that kind of trust quickly. The back that the offense will have faith in is Mathews and only Mathews. Sure, he'll have to learn how to come in on 3rd downs and keep Rivers upright. He'll have to learn to keep the ball when trusted with it in key situations. And he'll have to show that he's physically and mentally tough enough to stay out there for the majority of plays and still produce. But, what other choice do they have?
The other reason Mathews hasn't reached workhorse status is health. This may be the biggest concern because it's hard to judge whether this was a trend that is destined to continue and it's hard to tell if it can be fixed. And of course it's also hard to trust the training staff to help him prevent these injuries. In Gehlken's article he quotes Norv Turner talking about how it was only a thumb injury that lingered with Mathews last year. And Mathews has been seen looking buffer and stronger. However, in 2010 he had a high ankle sprain. In 2009, with Fresno State, he had a concussion. In 2008, he had a knee injury that caused him to miss a lot of games. And in 2007, he tore a muscle near his collarbone. It's definitely a concern, albeit not one that requires extreme pessimism, but one that shouldn't be handwaved away by the Head Coach.
As I stated at the beginning, this is an intriguing question. The Head Coach has the history to back up this workhorse back strategy. The team is in need for a workhorse back given its other options on the roster. And yet Ryan Mathews might not be the ideal candidate to fill that role. Is this a square peg in a round hole due to poor roster planning or an expert offensive tactitian being one step ahead of everyone? We'll find out eventually.