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Will Ryan Mathews Bounce Back?: A Research Project

Like with most posts, this post is will be a journey through numbers as I research a theory that I have. The theory, and it's not a rare one, is that many rookie running backs improve from their rookie seasons to their second year. When I say improve, I mean they stay healthier, fumble less and generally make more big plays; all of the things we felt were lacking from Ryan Mathews in 2010.

The reason I feel that this is necessary is that fans — and certain radio shows that I won't mention — are already writing Mathews off. They're ready to call him "The new Buster Davis", which seems incredibly unfair. Especially to someone who thought that Mathews was pretty good last year. So let's start by coming up with an arbitrary list of good RBs that had as many carries in their rookie season as Ryan had in 2010:

  • Matt Forte
  • Chris Johnson
  • Adrian Peterson
  • LeSean McCoy
Everyone alright with that list? I came about it by looking at 2010's top rushers, than trying to find comparable rookie seasons (in terms of expectations, starts, carries, etc.). What I found is that most of the top rushers split carries their first year, which is what Mathews ended up doing by default.

Games Carries Rush Yds Rush TDs Y/A Fumbles
Forte 16 316 1,238 8 3.9 1
Johnson 15 251 1,228 9 4.9 1
Peterson 14 238 1,341 12 5.6 4
McCoy 16 155 637 4 4.1 2
Mathews 12 158 678 7 4.3 5

Obviously, we're comparing Mathews with the best RBs in the league so it's going to be difficult for him to compete. However, it's interesting to see his yards per attempt as better than Forte and McCoy and to see that he had almost twice as many TDs as McCoy. The two things he needs to work on are the two things that we knew all along: fumbles and health. However, to call him a bust when he put up a rather solid 3/4 of a season is a little much.

Let's look at how the four comparables did in their second year.

Games Carries Rush Yds Rush TDs Y/A Fumbles
Forte 16 258 929 4 3.6 6
Johnson 16 358 2,006 14 5.6 3
Peterson 16 363 1,760 10 4.8 9
McCoy 15 207 1,080 7 5.2 2

So, who regressed? Well, Forte took a step back in every category except games played. The biggest reason for that, though, was a switch in offensive philosophies when Mike Martz was hired as the Offensive Coordinator.

Johnson and Peterson took huge steps forward, but Peterson's problems with fumbles got worse. McCoy, with Michael Vick taking a lot of the defense's focus, was a much better RB. McCoy is a good comparison for Mathews in terms of performance, especially because the Chargers offense around Mathews is expected to be improved over last season. Also, both players are running backs in systems that are heavily pass-oriented, whereas Peterson and Johnson were the #1 option in their respective offenses.

Peterson is the best comparison in terms of fumbles. In his first three seasons, he fumbled once every 45.75 carries. Mathews, in his rookie year, fumbled once every 31.6 carries. It's worse than Peterson, but neither number is good. In his fourth season, Peterson fumbled just once in 283 carries. More on this in a second.

Tiki Barber is always the go–to example. Tiki was thought of as a guy that was too small and fumbled too often to ever be a starting RB. How bad was it? Well, in a four-year span he had 35 fumbles (never less than 8 in a season). At one point, he was fumbling once every 22 carries. Yikes.

Tiki decided that he needed to put the team and the turnovers ahead of his own performance, and started running with two hands on the ball at all times. Instead of his running getting worse, he actually got better. Since retiring, Barber has worked with several RBs to fix their fumbling issues. One of those guys was Adrian Peterson. Want to know what they found out?

I found out at times by studying myself when I'm going down, I kinda braced myself with my hand that I'm carrying the ball in and that's leaving opportunities for those guys that are in their scraping and punching for the ball.That gives them big opportunities to make big plays. I'm a pretty tough guy, so I need to just keep the ball high and fall down

So, here's the point I'm getting at: If you have called Ryan Mathews a bust, you're a fool. His talent running the ball is obvious. He may even be at the level of a Tiki Barber or an Adrian Peterson, where he's so good that you're willing to live with the fumbles for a while. The bigger point here is that fumbling issues are fixable, and perhaps would already be fixed with Mathews had he been afforded the opportunity to work out at Chargers Park with the coaching staff during the offseason instead of being locked out.

Mathews will be fine. He's exactly what this offense needs, a tough RB that can break off big plays when the O-line opens up holes for him. Missing a quarter of the season is not a rarity in the NFL, especially for a rookie, and hopefully the health gods shine happily on Mathews for the rest of his career. The fumbles are not the biggest deal in the world either. It could be worse, Ryan could have been an untalented RB.