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Mathews up to challenge of replacing boyhood idol

Discussion in 'American Football' started by Johnny Lightning, Aug 31, 2010.

  1. Johnny Lightning

    Johnny Lightning Go Bolts

    Feb 7, 2006
    By Steve Wyche NFL.com
    Senior Writer
    Aug. 26, 2010

    Chargers RB Ryan Mathews has the tough task of replacing his idol, LaDainian Tomlinson, in San Diego.

    After a pre-scouting combine workout outside of Los Angeles last winter, I asked then Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews if there was a player he patterned himself after. He didn't even have to think about it.
    "LaDainian Tomlinson," he said then.
    Mathews even chose to don Tomlinson's No. 21 at Fresno State, where he rushed for 1,808 yards and 19 touchdowns last season as a junior.
    "Just making it to the NFL is a dream come true," Mathews said. "But to be here after L.T. is a bit surreal. I'm lucky to have (Darren) Sproles as a mentor as well. I've already learned a lot from him."
    That's about as much as Mathews will say about Tomlinson. To describe the dynamic of his current situation as awkward is an understatement.
    The player Mathews grew up emulating is the player the Chargers got rid of so he could take Tomlinson's place. It's like being the rebound dude after a woman's spilt from her longtime husband.
    Call it involuntary collateral damage that coincidentally placed Mathews in the crosshairs of replacing not only one of his idols, but living up to what Tomlinson was: One of the best running backs in NFL history and arguably the greatest player in Chargers' lore.
    "He's a big fan of L.T.'s," coach Norv Turner said. "He grew up wearing his same number. L.T. was one of the guys he saw as a role model, and it's kind of a neat story for him. In his mind, he's a running back and he's here, and we're going to gear the thing around him in terms of the running game."
    The same way San Diego geared things around Tomlinson for nine years. That's pressure.
    It's a personnel and personality change that was a year or two in the making, at least in terms of Tomlinson's departure from San Diego. Tomlinson signed with the Jets, and he's out to prove that San Diego made a mistake by cutting ties. Mathews, who is two inches taller (6-foot) and three pounds lighter than Tomlinson (218), is out to prove the Chargers were right for making him the man, even though he didn't ask to be Tomlinson's heir.
    "He talked to L.T. when he got here, and that helped," Chargers running backs coach Ollie Wilson said. "Ryan has great respect for him. He knows who and what L.T. was. It's something he tries not to think about. But just look at this. When we watch film from last year, who does he see? He watches and hears that stuff all the time. He could have crumbled already, but he hasn't. He's trying to be himself."
    Other players have forged their own identities following franchise greats -- Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, first Edgerrin James and then Joseph Addai in Indianapolis, Steve Young with the 49ers. Yet, distinguishing themselves meant changing minds quickly. In three preseason games, Mathews (34 carries, 146 yards -- 4.3 yards per carry) is off to a good start. But people are going to expect him to be like L.T. in his prime, not when he worked through struggles as a rookie or when his production decreased as he neared 30 years of age.
    Wilson said Mathews will find his way.
    "That's a strong kid," Wilson said. "His background tells you that he's not going to let anything get in his way from him being who he is."
    Immediately after being drafted, Mathews asked the coaches if he could wear a jersey number other than the one he loved -- but L.T. wore. Hence, Ryan dons No. 24. It was his first degree of separation. There is more to Mathews' character that projects further independence.
    Growing up in California, Ryan and his mother lived out of her car during a portion of his adolescence. He and his mother didn't succumb to being lumped into that plight. They worked their way to getting back on their feet, with Mathews supplying much of the inspiration by standing out on the football field. He emerged as one of college football's top players last season and became the second running back selected in the 2010 draft.
    Perseverance is inherent.
    Living up to greatness might not compare to dealing with a seat belt doubling as a blanket.
    "You get a guy, 12th pick in the draft, and you can get some guys who come in with attitude that they're the 12th pick, and they're ready to be the star and they don't need a lot of coaching or attention," Turner said.
    "Ryan is just the opposite of that. He's been through it all. He's been coached real hard. He takes to coaching really well. He understands that all of us can get better, and he's done a great job of fitting in and not expecting to be treated differently than anyone else."
    Every play Mathews makes -- and he will make some -- will be compared to Tomlinson's. Every mistake he makes will be, too. Mathews' explosive running style, especially the way he can plant his foot and accelerate in any direction, including forward, is reminiscent of Tomlinson's. Mathews is more of a power runner, but like Tomlinson, he has deceptive speed and a burst out of cuts that allows him to escape big hits or deliver one if he lowers his shoulder.
    Mathews is a "good young running back," an opposing defensive coordinator said after watching Mathews this preseason. "Good quicks. Good strength. Decent vision."
    Said Wilson: "He is really explosive, and we are very happy with him. He is what we thought we'd be getting when we traded up to the 12th spot to get him. He needs to learn to keep his pads down when he runs. He's learning about running with his pads up each practice the hard way. He's getting there.
    "He's also spending that extra time learning. When I coached Warrick Dunn and L.T., they never wanted to be embarrassed when they got on the field, so they made sure they had everything right by the time they took the field. They had that pride factor. The great ones have that quality. He's got that some quality that, 'I'm not going to be the one why this doesn't work.'"
    Possibly disarming Mathews is the absence of left tackle Marcus McNeill and wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who are holding out in nasty contract disputes. McNeill was the team's top offensive lineman, and defenses had to stay honest because of Jackson, a Pro Bowler and one of the NFL's top wideouts. With both gone, opponents are going to game plan to stuff Mathews. He'll have to earn every yard.
    To ease the pressure, Turner said the Chargers will use super sub running back Darren Sproles in non-third down roles, but they'll also turn to emerging Mike Tolbert, a fullback who's earned a lot of trust toting and catching the ball from the tailback spot.
    Mathews is going to be the main man, but Tolbert and Sproles will be used in pass sets and other formations so Mathews won't be overwhelmed. Mathews also is playing with quarterback Philip Rivers, one of the best in the league.
    "To be here is a good position for me," Mathews said. "Not only is the team established, but they are in the hunt for the Super Bowl. It's just a great environment to be in. My teammates are fun, and the coaches are great."
    "A lot of times guys come in viewed as the savior," Turner added. "We led the AFC in scoring and (Mathews) needs to be a part of that. He's going to have an impact. He's shown in (three) games that he's able to have an impact."
    The plan is to buoy Mathews with Tolbert and Sproles for the first few weeks and by midseason, he'll be enough up to speed that he'll be able to handle 300-plus touches -- like Tomlinson.
    By then, maybe he'll be judged on his own merit.

    NFL.com news: Chargers' Mathews up to challenge of replacing boyhood idol
  2. Johnny Lightning

    Johnny Lightning Go Bolts

    Feb 7, 2006
    Top five

    TOP FIVE: Which rookies will have the biggest impact?


    1. Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers

    The Chargers cleared the path for Ryan Mathews by releasing LaDainian Tomlinson and moving up in the draft to select the Fresno State running back. Mathews will be the featured back for a team that fell to 31st in rushing last season. With Philip Rivers directing the offense and checking in and out of plays to put the team in the best situation, Mathews is going to get a lot of plays against two high safeties worried more about the pass more than the run. Tomlinson had 223 carries last year, and Ryan will get all of those and more.
    Expect Mathews to be close to the 254 carries young Ray Rice had in Baltimore. Mathews will have another good situation with Antonio Gates on the field. Teams with tight ends who can flex their alignment usually cause defenses to play it with a man and a half, which opens up a lot more running lanes. Mathews only caught 19 passes in college, but the Chargers already have discovered he has good hands and has three receptions in his first two preseason games. He could easily wind up with 30 receptions this year, even though the third-down package will usually include Darren Sproles instead of Mathews. Mathews averaged 6.1 yards per carry in college and 5.0 in the preseason. Barring injury he is ready for a 1,000-yard season on a team built for a playoff run.

    Next: Jahvid Best
  3. Retired Catholic

    Retired Catholic BoltTalker

    Aug 3, 2006
    Matthews is going to make a lot of tacklers regret meeting him at all.
  4. Cheapseats

    Cheapseats The fight for LA is over....LA lost.

    Jul 24, 2008
    Since Mathews is one of many weapons for the Chargers, he won't have to have monster stats to be very successful here...but I think he will have some pretty impressive numbers. I like what I have seen so far, and he is still improving week to week. It is nice to have a running game again!

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