SAN DIEGO — Before he has ever taken a handoff for the Chargers, rookie RB Ryan Mathews has found himself with nowhere to run.
But that's everything off the football field, mind you. His new team is learning to deal with a new kind of adversity, and Mathews finds himself right in the middle of the pile.
The Chargers released franchise-leading rusher and icon LaDainian Tomlinson in the offseason. They're also in a holding pattern with three of their better players — OLB Shawne Merriman, WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill — currently holding out.
Although this remains QB Philip Rivers' team, no doubt, Mathews has found himself playing the role of rookie savior.
"I definitely have felt the pressure so far, and we haven't even played a game yet," Mathews, 23, said after practice Friday.
It just so happens that Mathews grew up idolizing L.T., having his posters on his wall as a kid and choosing his No. 21 uniform in high school in Tomlinson's honor. That hasn't taken away the pressure of replacing a legend at all. And though Rivers has been a go-to player for the media for years, Mathews has found himself swarmed at times with attention. The Fresno State star admits that he has grown a little tired of the Tomlinson questions and comparisons.
"Yeah, it has been (tiresome)," Mathews said in a rare quiet moment away from the media crush, sitting in front of his temporary locker at the Chargers' training facilities. "You have to respect the guy. He's a legend. I looked up to him. He was my guy. He did what he had to do (leaving this offseason). And he left lots of good stuff, a measuring stick as far as how I need to start making my legacy."
That legacy, in theory, begins with the Chargers' preseason opener at Chicago. There's no way Mathews can silence all the outside voices he's hearing these days, but he knows there will be something therapeutic with getting into some game action.
"I have to get that first hit in the (Chicago) game," he said. "After that, it's all uphill from there. (He laughed.) Or all downhill. A little bit of both I guess."
Although the trite sound bites will come more naturally in time for the hyped rookie, he has shown that playing football comes quite naturally to him. Mathews admitted he'll have some serious butterflies during that first game, but head coach Norv Turner isn't too worried about how his new player will handle things.
"Every time you do it, it gets a little easier," Turner said. "He'll really have those feelings when we play Chicago Saturday night. And when we get to our opening game in Kansas City, I know he'll be nervous as hell and have those butterflies, but he'll be ready to go."
Well-spoken and thoughtful, Mathews is still best at dealing with adversity on the field, between the tackles or outside them. He says he thinks his vision is one of his better traits, able to seek out tiny cracks among swarming defenders. Mathews is just as happy carving through the middle of the defense as he is bouncing it outside, just the way another former Chargers back used to do.
In 11-on-11 drills in practice, Mathews was handed the ball on what looked like a simple trap play, but the defense penetrated the line and botched up the blocking scheme. He planted hard on his left leg, stopped and kicked it outside in a fluid sequence. Later, in 9-on-7 drills, when the defense knew a run was coming, Mathews took the handoff and ran hard inside, getting a step on a defensive tackle and appearing to catch ILB Kevin Burnett in a bad tackling angle before the whistle blew.
Inside, outside, Mathews appears a complete runner.
But Tomlinson and the Chargers struggled to run the ball last season, averaging a league-worst 3.3 yards per carry. They leaned on the passing game, and it carried the team to a 13-3 mark and the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. But everything unraveled in the playoff loss to the Jets, which showed that a good defense can make the Chargers one-dimensional.
Exit Tomlinson, enter Mathews.
Although Rivers and the passing game remain the bread and butter, there's a belief that Mathews can make this a more balanced and dangerous team. He has the size (6-0, 218 pounds) to withstand a healthy beating and the speed to inject life in the run game. It was that combination that led the Chargers and GM A.J. Smith to trade up 16 spots in Round One to secure their future bell-cow back. Smith recently acknowledged that landing Mathews was all part of his grand plan as the team attempted to shore up the offensive backfield.
Although training camp is less than two weeks old, everyone is feeling the crunch. Two-a-day practices are haunting veteran bones and shocking rookies who have yet to experience this kind of mental and physical grind. Mathews admits he's right up against both.
"I feel like I am about to hit (the rookie wall)," Mathews said. "I feel like the days are just getting meshed in together. I am just trying to fight through it.
"I have a lot of good people tutoring me — Rivers and (RB Darren) Sproles and the linemen. I know I have some good people to count on. But it's starting to get to that point."
Sproles will be the changeup back, a burst of speed when Mathews needs a blow. Jacob Hester can shift from fullback to tailback and take a few carries here and there. And though Turner said that Mathews is starting to pick up third-down duties, something he didn't do a lot of in college, that job for now belongs to Sproles, one of the best in the league at pass protection.
"(Mathews) had a great blitz pickup the other day," Turner said. "He's a very good blocker, and he's a big, strong, physical guy. The biggest part of it now is the recognition and not being late. If you're late, one of these blitzing linebackers will get an edge on you. His time of recognition has gone way up, and he's getting himself in great position to make a play."
Hester said Mathews has impressed his teammates with his ability to digest the playbook and assimilate himself to this offense.
"He's done a great job of picking everything up," Hester said. "They've got some set stuff (designed) for him, and he's learned the in-depth stuff in the playbook. It's hard to see how he's looking without the pads on — he's a big, physical guy — but (when) we've put the pads on, he's looked great.
"He can do it and help us win. I know he can."
When you boil it down, Mathews said, that's why he was brought here. Not to replace — a word Mathews has heard "at least a hundred times," he surmises — a legend. Not to fill the gap of missing veterans holding out. Not to hijack the offense from one of the NFL's better quarterbacks.
"That's all I can control is what I do, not whatever else is going on (around me)," he said. "My goal as a football player has always been to win games, and that is not going to change now. When (Smith and Turner) brought me here, that's what they told me they wanted me to do, so that's what I am signed up for."
He might not have anywhere to hide right now, but pretty soon Mathews will have everywhere to run.
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