Welcome to the second installment of my continuing analysis of each position of the San Diego Chargers roster. As the team moves forward this off-season in the quest to “Rebuild the Bolts,” the running back position will have to be carefully assessed due to potential loss through free agency- and yes, because of less than stellar play on the field. The importance of having a balanced attack with both the passing and running game cannot be overstated. One assists the other through the entirety of a contest and a season. Teams that win consistently must be able to control the tempo of a game and eat up the clock when they are leading- especially late in games. This is something the Chargers have been unable to do since the departure of future Hall-of-Famer LaDainian Tomlinson. Let’s take a look at the running backs who are on the roster heading into this off-season…
Starting Halfback: Ryan Mathews
“Extremely talented players like Ryan get multiple opportunities to improve. What happens to fumblers is, first, they play less. Second, if it continues while they’re playing on a limited basis, then you don’t play for a while and you get to sit and think about it. Third, when you get the call to go back on the field and the fumbling continues, then you will be somebody else’s fumbler.”
Those were the exact words used by A.J. Smith in regards to starting halfback Ryan Mathews, after the enigmatic runner fumbled the ball away deep in Falcons territory during the third game of this season. Smith traded up in the 2010 NFL draft to pick Mathews as the heir to, then departing, LaDainian Tomlinson’s throne. The expectations that Smith, head coach Norv Turner, and Charger fans had were lofty. Mathews was coming off of a fantastic season at Fresno State, where he demonstrated incredible agility, burst and speed, electrifying Bulldog fans by amassing 1,808 yards and 19 touchdowns. With few injuries to speak of and no issues with ball security while a Bulldog, A.J.’s decision to trade up in the draft to snag Mathews before someone else did was commended by NFL commentators across the board. An admitted Chargers and Tomlinson fan, Ryan seemed to be the perfect replacement for L.T. and appeared to be a feature back on which the Bolts could rely for the next decade.
Now, after three seasons in San Diego, what seemed like a slam dunk has become one of the biggest question marks on the roster. Numerous issues with injuries and a consistent inability to secure the football have put Mathews’ long-term future with the team in question. There are still moments when Ryan shows flashes of his exceptional speed and agility. Unfortunately, the negative plays overshadow these moments because of the impact that turnovers have in the NFL. Some would point to the erratic play of his offensive line as a contributing factor to Mathews’ inconsistent play- and it would be hard to argue that point. Turner recently eluded to Ryan’s “lack of vision” as being one of the areas of concern, but quickly added that Mathews had “proven when there’s holes and opportunities to run, he’s a good back.”
For his career, under Turner, Mathews is averaging 14.8 carries for 65.2 yards per game…not exactly elite running back numbers. In 38 games played as a Charger, Ryan has scored 14 total touchdowns and accounted for 12 total fumbles…not exactly starting running back numbers. Mathews is under contract for next season and will, in all likelihood, be considered the Chargers #1 back heading into preseason. With a new head coach taking over, it will be a “make or break” season for the young runner. His future as a Charger beyond next season is tenuous to say the least.
Starting Fullback: Le’Ron McClain
Signed as a free agent out of Kansas City before the season, McClain was brought in to help create running lanes for Mathews and to be a short-yardage specialist in goal line situations. Through 15 games this season, McClain has been given the ball just 14 times for a total of 42 yards without a single touchdown. In the passing game, Le’Ron has only 8 receptions for 29 yards and no touchdowns. To be fair, fullbacks rarely get many opportunities to carry the ball during games. However, McClain is not your typical fullback. He has the ability to break tackles and make people miss. In 2008, as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, he rushed for 902 yards and accumulated 10 touchdowns- including one touchdown run of 82 yards! Personally, I would’ve liked to have seen McClain on the field more than he was under Turner. If the new head coach decides to utilize more two-back offensive sets next year, expect much bigger things from Le’Ron and the running game as a whole.
Backup Halfback: Jackie Battle
Like McClain, Battle signed with the Bolts as a free agent out of Kansas City. Jackie’s running style is more of a straight ahead, bruising, between-the-tackles type of runner. With the departure of Mike Tolbert last off-season, the Chargers’ needed for a strong-nosed backup for Mathews. Battle had rushed for 597 yards in a similar role for the Chiefs last year, so San Diego seemed like a perfect situation for Jackie to thrive. Opportunity presented itself for Battle going into the fourth game of the season when Mathews had been relegated to backup duty after fumbling against the Falcons a week prior. Battle used this starting opportunity to showcase himself against his former Chief teammates, rushing for a touchdown and receiving another.
Battle will become a free agent at season’s end. Whomever steps in at head coach will need to decide Jackie’s value to the team moving forward. Jackie’s skill set is limited, but he has been a dependable rusher this season rushing for 274 yards on 76 attempts with 3 touchdowns. He added 11 receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown in the passing game. Probably the biggest stat in Battle’s favor is that he has yet to fumble this season.
Backup Halfback: Ronnie Brown
Ronnie Brown joined the Chargers last off-season after spending one year in Philadelphia. His signing added more experience to the depth chart behind the oft-injured Mathews. Despite Brown’s advance age (31), he still possesses a unique blend of quickness, shiftiness and receiving ability that would provide additional offensive approaches for Turner. Although Brown was the original facilitator of the “Wildcat” formation years ago in Miami, there weren’t any plans to utilize him in that manner in San Diego. He was going to have more of a Darren Sproles type of assignment with the Bolts. Draw plays, swing passes and screens would be how Brown would have his impact.
Through 15 games this season, Ronnie’s stats have been decent. He’s rushed 41 times for 200 yards, for a 4.9 yards per carry average. As expected, Brown has contributed significantly in the passing game by accumulating 48 receptions for 368 yards. Unfortunately, Ronnie has yet to score a touchdown this year. His contract expires at the end of the season and though his age may work against him, he has contributed enough that the incoming regime will have to consider resigning him on a year-to-year basis…if nothing more than as a stop-gap solution until the new coach and general manager find a new young back to develop.
Backup Halfback: Curtis Brinkley
2012 was Brinkley’s third season on the Bolts’ roster. He has never been utilized more than a spot substitute runner to provide the regulars a chance to catch their breath. He has contributed on special teams effectively, which will help his cause when being evaluated by the new coaching regime this off-season. Curtis carried the ball 36 times this season for 105 yards, adding 12 receptions for 77 yards. He will be a restricted free agent meaning the Bolts will have a chance to match any other team’s offer to Brinkley or receive draft pick compensation. At 27 years of age, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the league views Curtis’ value.
In terms of overall “rebuilding” need, on a scale from 1 to 10 (with 1 being “no need” and 10 being “replace at all costs”), I’d rate the running back position as a 9. With only Mathews and McClain under contract to return next season, this is one of the positions that Chargers fans should see addressed heavily. Whether it is through free agency or the draft in April, I expect that there will be some new names vying for roster spots.