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How the San Diego Chargers Should Use Ryan Mathews

Premier running backs get the ball. Period. So why have the Chargers kept the leash on Mathews?

Harry How - Getty Images

Sunday night during the game I kept asking myself the same question in crucial situations: "Where’s Mathews?" Whether it was 2nd and goal at the 2 yard line and the offense had to resort to a FG, or 3rd and 2 before an incomplete pass (shotgun formation with Ronnie Brown!?) and a resulting punt, the best player on the field on Sunday night was missing in action.

It’s well known that Mathews is in Norv’s doghouse, but I kept telling myself that Norv wouldn’t let that get in the way of putting the best possible team on the field. Sunday night he did and the team lost because of it. I asked myself if any other teams have been in situations where they have to ask themselves if their premier RB with "fumblitis" is helping or hurting them, and remembered that Adrian Peterson and the Vikings went through the same situation a few years back. Let’s dive deeper into that.

Rookie Season:

Games Touches Touches/Game Yards Yards/Touch Fumbles Touches/Fum TDs Touches/TD
Peterson 14 257 18.4 1609 6.3 4 64.3 13 19.8
Mathews 12 180 15.0 823 4.6 5 36.0 7 25.7

Mathews clearly had issues with securing the ball, as well as with injuries in his rookie season. He really doesn't match up to Peterson in any category here. Stay tuned, things start to get more interesting.

Second Season:

Games Touches Touches/Game Yards Yards/Touch Fumbles Touches/Fum TDs Touches/TD
Peterson 16 384 24.0 1885 4.9 9 42.7 10 38.4
Mathews 14 272 19.4 1546 5.7 5 54.4 6 45.3

It's clear by looking at the second season numbers that Mathews was not only more effective (yardage-wise) when getting the ball in his second season, but he was also better with ball security than Adrian Peterson in his second season. Additionally, Mathews improved his effectiveness (yards/touch) and ball security with the increase in touches, while Peterson's efficiency and ball security both decreased with the increase in touches.

Something to note, Adrian Peterson amassed 384 touches and nearly 1900 yards in a season with 9 fumbles. Let's think about it a different way: he had only one more TD than fumble.Mathews was in a similar situation, with only one more TD than fumble. However, based on touches/fumble, Mathews had improved with respect to ball security, while Peterson had regressed. Yet the Chargers began to shy away from their premier RB with "fumblitis" and the Vikings kept feeding theirs the ball.

Peterson was more efficient at scoring TD's, yet Mathews was often pulled near the goal-line in favor of Mike "The Vulture" Tolbert so a lot of that may (or may not) be due to chances in the redzone.

Peterson received an average of 5 more touches per game than Mathews did, although this may be due to scheme. Both RB's received an increase in touches per game from their rookie season to their second season, even with the fumble issues.

Third Season:

Games Touches Touches/Game Yards Yards/Touch Fumbles Touches/Fum TDs Touches/TD
Peterson 16 357 22.3 1819 5.1 7 51.0 18 19.8
Mathews 3 49 16.3 297 6.1 1 49.0 1 49.0
Foster 13 331 25.5 1841 5.6 5 66.2 12 27.6

You may notice for the third season I added another premier RB, Arian Foster. So far in his first season Mathews is a full yard better per touch than Peterson, and half a yard better per touch than Foster. However, this is admittedly a small sample size for Mathews. The more important number here is to look at the decrease in touches/game for Mathews when compared to last season, while his effectiveness per touch has improved. That's not to say that he is more effective with less touches; he showed in his second season that his effectiveness increases with more touches. He is even better this season, yet he's seeing the field less.

I included Foster along with Peterson to show the touches per game for premier RBs. Offenses are built around premier RBs, while Mathews is currently just a role player in San Diego.Mathews isn't being utilized properly in order to give this team the best possible chances to win.

So what?:

You may be saying to me, "JK, you can't win games when your starting RB has fumblitis." I thank you for the feedback, but would like to show you that the Vikings won 21 games over the two year period that Adrian Peterson fumbled the ball 16 times (2008-2009). When you have a premier player at the RB position and you lean on them, you win games.

Each season, Mathews has become more effective every time he has touched the ball. His yards-per-touch number has increased from 4.6 to 5.7 to 6.1 in each season. He showed last season that he was improving at ball security, yet after only one fumble (albeit in a crucial situation) this season he has seen a lot of the bench, and the offense suffers for it. The case of Peterson shows that when you have a premier player, as Mathews has shown he is, you keep that player on the field and feed them the ball as much as possible...even if they fumble occasionally.

If you watched the New Orleans game, you noticed the distinct difference between an offense with and without Mathews. In the opening drive with Battle, the offense sputtered and resulted in a punt. Yet as soon as Mathews checks into the game, the team marches right down the field and Mathews looked like the best player on the field, because he was. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry, yet only received 12 carries on the game. Whether Mathews is still in Vice Principal Turner's doghouse or not, he needs to see more of the field if this team wants to win.

Here's the closer: Philip Rivers has already turned the ball over 6 times this season (5 INT's, 1 fumble lost), so if Norv is concerned about turning the ball over, he's taking the ball out of the wrong hands. Rivers has new receivers that he needs to get used to, and an OLine that needs to improve in protection.Establishing a running game to Mathews will open up the deep pass that is a key part of a Norv Turner offense, as well as taking the pressure off of Rivers.