What Could Still Go Right
So we’ve established Mathews’ 2012 was a disaster. What we need to know is, is Mathews’ career
going down in flames, or is there still hope for him to emerge as the player we’ve always thought he could be?
The first place to look for hope (or despair) is new coach Mike McCoy
. An offensive coordinator for the past four seasons, we should be able to glean some patterns from his running back usage, right? Well...not exactly.
In McCoy’s four years on the job, the Broncos ranked higher than 16th in rushing only once. That would be 2011, when Denver led the league
in rushing yards. Awesome, right? Well, no. You may remember there was something unique about the 2011 Broncos, a running quarterback named Tim Tebow
McCoy dialed up more runs than anyone else in the league in 2011, but hardly by choice. His other three years on the job, the Broncos finished 16th, 26th and 18th in the league in rushing, averaging 109 yards per game and 440 rushes per season.
Those are the numbers of a man who doesn’t disdain the run, but hardly embraces it. Only even those numbers are inconclusive. That’s because McCoy’s tenure in Denver was marked by one peculiarity after another. In 2009-10, McCoy may have been the Broncos’ “offensive coordinator,” but he was hardly the offensive boss. Those duties fell to head coach Josh McDaniels, who left no doubt as to whom was running the show during his whirlwind 1.5 year stay in the Rockies.
Leaping forward two years, McCoy no longer had McDaniels or Tebow lording over his shoulder, but someone else you may have heard of: Peyton Manning
. It’s little secret that though Manning is open to input, he’s essentially his own coordinator on the field. It’s Manning who spots the soft fronts his passing prowess commands and checks into runs, not his offensive coordinator.
So what we have with McCoy is a man who’s overseen four offenses, but could never outrun his extenuating circumstances, and had little-to-no chance to implement his own vision. There’s plenty of reason to believe McCoy was doing something right in Denver, but little empirical evidence to hint at what he might do once he’s finally calling the shots.
But there’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence, and most of it screams “pass.” In McCoy’s 12 years as an NFL assistant, he’s held the titles “WRs Coach,” “QBs Coach” and “Passing Game Coordinator” in addition to offensive coordinator. Notice there’s no “RBs Coach” or “OL Coach” sprinkled in for fun.
There’s also the matter of his
offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt. McCoy has pledged to let Whiz call his own plays, and when Whiz has been responsible for the plays, they’ve typically been passes. Whisenhunt’s Cardinals ranked No. 32 in the NFL in rushing attempts last season even though they were alternating between a veritable three stooges at quarterback in Kevin Kolb
, Ryan Lindley
and John Skelton
In Whisenhunt’s six years in the desert, the Cardinals never finished better than 25th in rushing attempts. They finished dead last four different times,
and an average of 30th. Whiz was just as unlikely to run under an elite quarterback (No. 32 in 2008 and 2009 with Kurt Warner
at the controls) as he was under a terrible one (No. 32 in 2010 with Derek Anderson
and company, 2012). What he has in Philip Rivers
is something in between.
So if the Chargers’ new offensive overseers are planning to make Mathews a focal point of their offense, their history wouldn’t suggest it. In the slightest. At all.
But to focus on how Mathews’ coaches might utilize him is to ignore the most important part of the story: Mathews’ history of injuries, underwhelming production and general inability to earn the trust of anyone, from his coaches to his fantasy owners.
This has all already been laid out in excruciating detail, but in bullet-point form Mathews has:
— Missed an average of three games per season.
— Suffered multiple injuries to both his lower and upper body, soft-tissue ailments as well as clean breaks.
— Averaged one lost fumble for every 5.4 games he’s played.
— Time and again failed to distinguish himself as a runner. (See all the depressing stats and numbers above.) Our Best Guess For 2013
Mathews has already turned the page on 2012: He’s called it "just a bad year," and believes he still has "what it takes to reach that next level.” The “next level” is what he’s pledged to arrive at in 2013.
Free agents, Jackie Battle
and Ronnie Brown
will both likely be gone. A coach who had clearly lost faith in a player he traded up 16 spots to draft, Norval Turner, already is.
But there will undoubtedly be a new Battle, a new Brown. There are new coaches whose histories suggest they’ll come up with fresh and exciting ways to avoid running the ball. Per the Union-Tribune San Diego — which has its finger on the pulse of Chargers affairs as few other hometown papers do — there is "some doubt" in the organization Mathews will ever develop into "the player that was envisioned three years ago."
Mathews is still young, and he’s still optimistic. If there’s a silver lining to his injury history, it’s that there’s relatively little tread on his tires after three NFL seasons. But the reasons for doubt with Mathews far outnumber the reasons for hope. Even as part of a likely committee, Mathews should be the chairman. He will provide fantasy value when he takes the field. But how often he’s able to take the field will remain an open question, and how often he disappoints fantasy owners should likely remain an open wound.
The best-case scenario for Mathews still involves him emerging as a true lead back and fantasy RB1. Our best guess, however, involves more of the same. Injury, disappointment and a whole lot of “what was I thinking in August?”