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Mathews ready to take the next step

Discussion in 'Chargers Fan Forum' started by Blue Bolt, Aug 11, 2011.

  1. Blue Bolt

    Blue Bolt Persona Non Grata

    Oct 28, 2009
    CHARGERS: Mathews ready for sophomore year
    By SCOTT BAIR sbair@nctimes.com | Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2011 6:54 pm

    SAN DIEGO ---- Ryan Mathews spent the moments before his first professional football game in a Qualcomm Stadium bathroom, puking his guts out. Anxiety got the best of the Chargers' rookie running back nearly a year ago, evoking a physical manifestation of the jitters that take hold before most games.

    Mathews didn't have to volunteer that information following the 2010 exhibition opener against Chicago, but he discussed it in detail following a successful start to his career.

    The moment endeared Mathews to Chargers fans, proving this superior athletic talent was in fact human. It was one of several from the time Mathews was taken No. 12 overall in the 2010 draft until the regular season began.

    Mathews was an open book at the outset, revealing personal details to a fanbase seeking an emotional connection with the next big thing. He talked about the part of his childhood spent living in a worn-down Cutlass Supreme. He's proclaimed himself an old-fashioned momma's boy. Mathews said he wore No. 21 at Bakersfield West High and Fresno State as homage to LaDainian Tomlinson, the icon he was drafted to replace.

    Fans loved his honesty and his imperfections. From April through August, anyway.

    Then it was time to produce. Mathews was expected to be a rushing robot during the 2010 season, with tireless legs that would carry the Chargers on to postseason glory.

    As we all know, that's not how the story goes.

    Mathews struggled with injuries and ball security during a 9-7 campaign that ended without a playoff berth. The fans' disappointment grew with each mistake, and eventually turned into a pervading pessimism that carries on to this day.

    "Fans expect a lot. They always will," Mathews said Wednesday, the eve of the Chargers exhibition opener against Seattle. "One minute they don't like you and the next minute they do. They want to see what you can do and do it all the time. I know every Chargers fan wants to see me do well and help the team win.

    "They had high expectations for me last year, and I guess I didn't do what they thought I would do. I worked as hard as I could throughout the season, and nobody wanted success more than I did. As everyone knows, some mishaps happened. But I'm back this year, and I'm healthy and strong.

    "We'll see what I can do this time around."

    Mathews enters his sophomore season with a fresh outlook, a year's worth of life lessons in the memory bank and teammates that support him.

    "I don't think the expectations placed on Ryan last season were unfair," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "That's just part of being such a high pick. People want instant results, but they forget that there's a progression to becoming an NFL player. Nobody's perfect and that's a good thing, because you learn the most from disappointment. Honestly, Ryan's biggest setback last season wasn't technical. It was the early injury that took away some physical tools and kept him from getting in a rhythm. With health and experience comes progress."

    A high ankle sprain suffered in Week 2 against Jacksonville prevented steady progress and hindered him throughout the season. Despite the injury, he still led his running back draft class with 678 yards, seven touchdowns and 4.3 yards per carry over 158 rushing attempts. Detractors pointed to his five fumbles, three of which were lost.

    That fumble total, as inexcusable as it was, was better than Tomlinson's rookie sum. The active poster boy for ball security fumbled eight times and lost five in his first season, albeit over 398 touches and 1,603 yards from scrimmage. There's no doubt Tomlinson had a better rookie year than Mathews, but it proves that he got better over time.

    Mathews believes he can do the same.

    "I'm a lot more confident, which isn't to say I wasn't last year," Mathews said. "I just have a much better understanding of the system and the personnel around me. I'm comfortable within my role and I believe I can help this team do some special things."

    Mathews' season didn't start with a bang. His lackluster performance at a surprise training camp conditioning assessment sent up some red flags, but Mathews has been doing extra running and Chargers coach Norv Turner believes his young rusher has a chance to be in the best shape of his life come September.

    The Chargers have treated him with kid gloves thus far, but Mathews wants to play in the preseason ---- maybe as early as Thursday ---- to get primed for games that truly matter.

    His technique is far better in practice than a year ago. He runs lower to the ground and has vastly improved as a receiver and a pass protector, which should make him a better all-around back. His teammates say his choices are more instinctual than processed, which allows his true talent to shine.

    "You can tell when he's not over-thinking things, because he makes runs and cuts that seem supernatural," Rivers said. "He has so much talent and can do things most other backs can't. If he stays healthy, people will be impressed. He has the speed, balance and power to be an excellent running back in this league."

    Mathews knows he must prove that in the regular season. He also knows that doing so will turn Chargers faithful back into fans, but that's not his motivation for success. Mathews doesn't have much interest in celebrity. He'd rather remain just outside the limelight, even if his draft status and lot in life won't allow it.

    "I think I'm just another guy, with a different skill set than other people do in a profession that's more public than most," Mathews said. "I don't look at myself as a star. Playing running back for the Chargers is my job, and I want to do it exceptionally well."

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