It was set up to be a breakout season for San Diego Chargers third-year RB Ryan Mathews. Coach Norv Turner described Mathews’ role for this year as a virtual every-down back. More than one Fantasy expert had Mathews near the top of their boards. Mathews himself had bought into the hype until his first play in preseason.
“I was coming in thinking I was going to run through preseason and start the season on point,” Mathews said. “I had one carry for 6 yards, and I broke my (right) clavicle. You can’t take anything for granted. You just have to work with what you got and keep going.”
Pressure has been on Mathews since the moment San Diego moved up in the draft to select him with the 12th overall pick in 2010. He was immediately cast into the shadow of his idol, former legendary Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson (2001-09).
It was a shadow that hung over him like a cloud. Tomlinson left San Diego as the team's all-time leader in rushing yards (12,490), rushing TDs, (138), rushing attempts (2,880) and total yards from scrimmage (16,445).
Tomlinson was durable and secured the ball. Mathews has struggled with both. He has been inactive for six games in his short career. Injuries also reduced his production. He's rushed for fewer than 50 yards seven times and has nine fumbles through his first two seasons.
San Diego media and fans had grown accustomed to an eloquent Tomlinson, but an already soft spoken Mathews withdrew. He frequently hid under a towel while sitting at his locker, an act to apparently discourage media from asking him questions.
The clouds appeared darkest last season when Bears CB Charles Tillman knocked the ball out of Mathews’ hands in Week 11. It was another turnover that arguably cost the Chargers a game and gave them their fifth consecutive loss. It may have also been the moment when the clouds finally started to part.
The following day, Mathews stood at his locker and addressed the local beat writers head on. He took responsibility for the fumble and said it will never happen again. He then ripped off three consecutive 100-yard games for the first time in his career. He finished 2011 with 1,091 rushing yards and made his first Pro Bowl.
The same attitude he finished last season with has been carried forward in dealing with his broken clavicle. “It’s a tough break,” Mathews said. “That’s all it is.”
Mathews’ commitment to return as soon as possible has been impressive. He began rehabbing without the benefit of a sling just four days after suffering the injury.
Mathews believes the extra work may lead to a better season for him.
“It gave me time to work on my legs,” Mathews explained. “I couldn’t lift the first two weeks, so I just killed my legs every day. I feel like my legs are stronger now because of that.”
Since the injury, Mathews has stated his desire to play in the season opener against the Raiders on Monday. Mathews participated in his third straight practice Thursday but was still limited without contact and it appears he will fall short of that goal.
But Mathews remains confident this will still be his breakout season. “I just have to keep doing what I have to do to get better,” Mathews said. “As soon as I do come back and play, I am going to be ready.”