It's around this time of year that I start getting very optimistic about the San Diego Chargers' upcoming season. I start thinking about how the Bolts have filled up a hole from the previous season, either with a new player (Kevin Burnett will be a big improvement over Tim Dobbins!) or with an injured player getting healthy (Antonio Cromartie's hip is better? 20 picks, GUARANTEED!).
A lot of the time I ignore the new holes that are opening up, and this offseason I'm going to try to be more realistic about the holes that could be there (Stephen Cooper, Nathan Vasher, SS, slot WR, etc.) in 2010. However, right now, we're going 100% optimism. After the jump, we'll explore each of the ways that Ryan Mathews improves the San Diego Chargers.
Balancing the Offense
This one is pretty obvious. For several seasons now, defenses have thought of the Chargers' running attack as nothing more than a change-up. The only way the Bolts could be successful running the ball was either against a terrible defense, or by completely fooling the offense.
By adding a running back who could potentially be one of the better starting RBs in the league, you balance out the defense on each play. Defenses can not longer play with 5 or 6 defensive backs against the Chargers on each play, because those guys won't be able to tackle Ryan Mathews. Defenses can no longer leave their safeties back for "over the top" help on 2nd & 7, because the Chargers won't be afraid to run Mathews in that situation to get 5+ yards. Having a running threat on every play makes your passing game so much more dangerous, and allows for Norv Turner to be much more creative with his play-calling.
Let's start off by saying that, in his hey-day, LaDainian Tomlinson was one of the most versatile running backs the NFL has ever seen. He could run inside or outside, he could catch a pass out of the backfield and could probably line up as receiver if the team wanted him to. He could throw touchdown passes. He was too fast for linebackers and bigger safeties to try to stay with in coverage but, because of Antonio Gates, those were usually the guys left covering him. As he got older, and he started to put some wear on his legs, he got slower and suddenly he couldn't create any separation from those LBs and bigger safeties. He became an outside runner without the speed to be an outside runner, and a receiver with good hands but no ability to separate from defenders.
Here's where Mathews comes in. Suddenly the Chargers get a new RB with soft hands, but this one has LT's old speed. Ryan has the speed to create separation with LBs and safeties in coverage, has the speed to get around the outside and has the power to run inside as well. Will he make the flashy plays LT once did? Maybe, maybe not. Will he be a Hall of Famer? Maybe, maybe not. However, what he will do...even in his rookie season....is change the way that defenses have to play the Chargers offense. Once you start doing that, and freeing up Philip Rivers and Norv Turner more, the league is in for some trouble.
Helping the Defense
A lot of stat-nerds, myself included, will occasionally argue that the "time of possession" is a BS stat that's meaningless. How fast your offense scores means very little compared to how often they score, right? Well, yes and no.
Having a strong running game give you a lot more power to dictate the tempo of the game. If the other offense just marched down on the field on your defense, it's important to give the defense a few minutes to breathe and figure out what went wrong. This is why 3-and-outs can be killers.
Let me explain why it's easier to take that situation and deal with it with a strong running game. Let's say that happens to the Chargers in 2009. Now, Philip Rivers knows that he needs to throw accurate passes to open receivers so that the team doesn't go 3-and-out. The offensive line knows that they need to protect him to allow him to find that receiver and throw the pass. The receiver knows he needs to run his route right, create the separation and catch the ball. All the while, the team is going up against the opposing D-line, LBs and secondary....who are all trying to stop the play.
Now, let's assume that Ryan Mathews is everything that we hope he is in 2010. The equation, of who the team needs to rely on on offense and who they're going up against, essentially gets cut in half. The only people that need to do their job in that situation are the offensive line and the running back, and they're really only going up against the front 7 of the opposing defense. Sounds a little easier, right? A little more fool-proof? Exactly.
Not to mention the obvious benefit of winning the time of possession battle with a strong running game: a healthier, more-rested defense.
Beating the Weather
Let me paint a picture that Chargers fans are very familiar with. LaDainian Tomlinson sits on the sidelines while it snows during a game in January (either in New England or Pittsburgh), the Chargers offense struggles to get any sort of consistency but manages to stay in the game.....only to have the defense wear out in the final quarter and give up a big run to Willie Parker/Laurence Maroney/Shonn Greene.
Playoff football, whether or not many fans want to admit it, is a different brand of football. You can win with offense (look at this last year's Super Bowl), but your offense better be good enough to overcome a strong defense and your defense better be good enough to slow down a strong running game. In year's past, the Chargers have had none or only half of this equation and it's led to early exits in the playoffs. This season, with a potentially strong running-game, the Chargers are better suited to face the built-for-the-playoffs teams and win.