Mathews finally paying off for Chargers

BY Alex Marvez • October 1, 2011

Ryan Mathews says his first NFL season was “fun.”


Fun would have been hitting the lofty goals — 250 carries and 40 catches — that San Diego Chargers head coach Norv Turner had predicted for his rookie running back in 2010.

Fun would have been avoiding the injuries that sidelined Mathews for four games and limited his playing time in others.

Fun would have been immediately showing that Mathews was a true heir apparent to LaDainian Tomlinson and worthy of being the No. 12 overall pick in last year’s draft.

Not doing any of that while being labeled as a potential first-round draft bust? That can’t be fun — despite the spin that Mathews gave after Friday’s practice.

“I think it was a positive season,” Mathews said. “Some people don’t think so. But it showed me what I needed to work on and do to get ready for the upcoming years. It helped me a lot.”

On that point, there is no debate.

The good times are starting to roll for Mathews as he enters Sunday’s home game against the Miami Dolphins (0-3). Mathews is coming off his best all-around NFL performance in last Sunday’s 20-17 win over Kansas City. Beyond the 149 yards of offense he produced on 25 touches (21 runs and four catches), Mathews adroitly handled the pass-protection and goal-line duties that previously were designated to more experienced backup Mike Tolbert.

“He’s starting to see the whole picture of how things are coming together,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “That’s big because we ask a lot out of the backs in the passing game.”

The Chargers (2-1) publicly expected too much from Mathews in 2010. That’s why his modest production — 678 rushing yards and 22 receptions for 145 yards — was considered so disappointing.

Mathews only had 19 catches during three seasons at Fresno State before leaving early for the NFL. His limited knowledge of the passing game became a liability in San Diego. So did the nagging injuries that kept him from practice. Mathews had to wear an elbow brace for six weeks and suffered two in-season ankle sprains.

“Once you get this system, you can play fast,” said Chargers fullback Jacob Hester, who experienced similar growing pains early in his NFL career. “That’s the thing: When you come in and you’re a guy they’re going to count on, you’ve got to grasp it as fast as you can. It’s tough, but you see his progress each week. Even last year, we felt like he got better at the end.”

By that point, San Diego was knocked out of playoff contention for the first time since 2005. Mathews, though, ended the season on a high note with a 120-yard, three-touchdown rushing effort against Denver in Week 17.

Turner is convinced Mathews could have had more of that type of performance last season had he stayed healthy. Turner’s belief was buoyed by offseason film study he did of Mathews’ 2010 preseason during this offseason’s lockout . . . “when we had so much (free) time.”

“There are a lot of things that can slow down a rookie,” said Turner, whose team jumped 16 spots in the first round to select Mathews by trading with Miami. “I know everyone wants every young player to be an instant impact player. That’s not reality in this league. I think patience with a guy like Ryan and getting him completely healthy has paid off for him.

“There’s a natural disappointment you feel where you’re letting somebody down, but we made it clear to him that’s part of it. The worst thing we could have done was put him out there when he was injured or didn’t have enough practice to prepare to play and then he would have gotten someone else hurt.”

Mathews isn’t the only one reaping the benefits of his improved play. Rivers said opposing defenses are so determined to snuff San Diego’s dangerous deep passing game that short throws to the running backs are a must. Mathews has taken advantage by averaging 13.3 yards on his 14 receptions.

“He’s bought into understanding how important the check-downs are,” Rivers said. “The best way to understand that is to have them come up in a game and he goes for 35 (yards). It’s then, ‘Oh, that’s not a boring check-down. That’s a big play or third-down conversion.’”

The soft-spoken Mathews also has gained an education in the classroom. By remaining what Rivers describes as “humble and hungry,” Mathews has thrived while Tolbert and Hester have gladly offered tips and encouragement. This has helped the 23-year-old pay attention to the detail needed for NFL success. For example, Mathews points to several fumbles last season on which he was carrying the football “a couple of inches off my chest.”

“A couple of inches count,” said Mathews, who hasn’t fumbled in 59 touches this season. “It’s being able to take care of the small things.”

Mathews, who is expected to play Sunday after being listed as probable with a foot injury, knew what the expectations were when he arrived in San Diego. The California native was such a Tomlinson fan that he wore a No. 21 jersey at Fresno State. Mathews also knew that San Diego hadn’t fielded a formidable run-pass threat at running back since Tomlinson’s final season with the Chargers in 2009.

“He’s just so fluid and natural,” Mathews said. “I try to compare myself to him. It’s not there yet, but I think it will get there.”

How soon?

“I’m about 65-70 percent of the way there,” he said. “I still have a lot of building and work I need to do, but it will come. I have no doubt about it.”

That’s when the fun will really begin.

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