As long as Philip Rivers is on this team, he is the most important player on the field. I am here to argue that Ryan Mathews is second most valuable player for the rest of the season.
Rivers Isn't Right
Despite Antonio Gates declaring that Philip Rivers is playing through a "severe rib injury", coach Mike McCoy has declined that to be true. In fairness to Gates, McCoy's word means, well, nothing. In watching Rivers play, an injury certainly seems possible. He is making poor decisions, making inaccurate throws, and is quite simply failing to carry the offense like he did during their 5-game winning streak. Injury or not, the passing game is sputtering. As Mathews gets healthier, they need to run the ball to provide balance on offense and help the passing game.
Ideally, teams with a strong running game can run the ball no matter who the running back is. The Chargers simply do not have that luxury because the offensive line has been terrible. The only offensive lineman with a positive run block grade from Pro Football Focus is King Dunlap.
While the Chargers front office has made moves to improve the offensive line, they have not had the resources to build a unit with talent and depth with all of their other needs. Nick Hardwick's injury doomed an offensive line that is allowing its running backs to rush for an NFL-low 3.1 yards per carry. Mathews, on the other hand, rushed for about 4.4 YPC in his return on Sunday. He is going to need to give the team more than 16 carries to keep winning games.
It Worked Last Year
In 2013, the Chargers were at one point 5-7. In those 12 games, Mathews averaged 14.8 carries and 65.2 yards per game. After scoring a season low 10 points in a home loss to the Bengals, they decided to give the ball to number 24. In their 4 game winning streak to end the season, Mathews averaged over 26 carries and 118 yards per game. The Chargers won the time of possession battle in each of the games as well, which helped out their very thin defense. The defense is better than its 2013 version, but they (and Mr. Rivers) would greatly benefit from a stronger running game. At this point, the only way that will happen is with a lot of Ryan Mathews.