Scandals of the century.
The 19th had the Civil War. The 20th had Watergate and the Teapot Dome.
The 21st? “L'affaire de 3.8 et 12.”
In English, that’s “Ryan Mathews’ Yards Per Carry and Games Played.”
2012 was supposed to be the year of Ryan Mathews. Burdened with unfairly high expectations as a rookie in 2010, Mathews flopped while struggling to stay healthy. It was more of the same in 2011 before a hot finish saved his reputation and burnished his fantasy credentials. Over his final five games, Mathews totaled 587 yards from scrimmage while finding the end zone three times.
He became a fantasy X-factor while buttressing his overall numbers for the year. Mathews finished as the No. 7 fantasy back despite missing two games, playing just 48 percent of the Chargers’ snaps and watching Hall-of-Fame vulture Mike Tolbert pilfer eight touchdowns.
But that was all in the past by the time 2012 fantasy drafts came around. Tolbert was gone, and Mathews had arrived, albeit a bit late. Then an old friend came knocking...
What Went Wrong
One. That’s how many carries it took Mathews to get hurt in 2012. One lousy preseason carry. The five yards Mathews gained against the Packers came with a broken clavicle, and a 4-6 week price tag. All those fantasy hipsters saying they had moved on from Mathews and his melodrama were looking right after one freaking exhibition carry.
But they weren’t right...right? After all, Mathews was only expected to miss 1-2 regular season games. Fantasy seasons aren’t won and lost in Week 1 and 2, but Week 15 and 16. Heck, Mathews hadn’t become a disappointment, but a value. Let the others pass. You’ll gladly take the 24-year-old three-down back in the second or third round.
The first part went to plan. Mathews missed only two games. The second? How does “Avalanche of Disappointment” sound? “Landslide of Sorrow”? Whatever went wrong could. A KnownFumbler™, Mathews coughed it up to the Atlanta Falcons on his seventh carry of the season. It was all downhill from there.
Yahoo’s “Top Performer” for Mathews’ return? Jackie Battle. Yes, this Jackie Battle. He rushed three times for 55 yards in a Chargers loss. Battle took the ball 95 times on the season, and found the end zone four times more often than Mathews (literally four to one).
Only the Chargers didn’t just go with a two-back backfield, but a two-vulture backfield. Mathews also had to contend with Ronnie Brown. Yes, this Ronnie Brown. The Chargers’ third-down back, Brown made 49 catches to Mathews’ 39.
Let’s drop the narrative and go straight to the numbers. In 2012, Mathews:
1. Scored one touchdown. That’s fewer than Anthony Dixon and DuJuan Harris. It’s one less than Bilal Powell scored...in one quarter against the Rams in Week 11.
2. Scored fewer rushing touchdowns than 12 quarterbacks, including speedsters Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco and Tom Brady.
3. Had no 100-yard rushing efforts. Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch both had 10. Backups David Wilson, Robert Turbin, Marcel Reece, Isaac Redman, Peyton Hillis and Brandon Bolden all had one.
4. Touched the ball five times on third down. All year. This is not a joke. RYAN MATHEWS TOUCHED THE BALL ON THIRD DOWN FIVE TIMES ALL YEAR. Again, this is something Bilal Powell did in one game against the Rams.
5. Had one carry go for 20 yards or longer. One. An NFL feature back. A supposedly explosive one at that. One 20-yard carry. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer both had three 20-yard carries. 66 other players had at least two.
6. Ended his season by breaking his other clavicle, a supposedly freak occurrence. An orthopedic surgeon told the Union-Tribune San Diego in December that someone breaking both their collarbones in a four-month span is less likely to happen than getting struck by lightning.
That’s the long of it. The short? Mathews couldn’t stay healthy (again), lost the trust of his coaches (again) and failed to produce with any sort of consistency (again).
What stands out most is how little Mathews got around the edge. For a supposedly explosive back, a discouraging number of Mathews’ runs got corralled between the tackles in 2012.
You never want a runner to rely on busting out wide and motoring around the edge, but it’s a talent every feature back must possess. Aside from his season-best game against the hapless Saints in Week 5, Mathews was shockingly inept at extending runs outside and getting upfield for big gains. It’s why just one of Mathews’ 184 carries gained more than 20 yards, and none more than 31.
It’s not because Mathews isn’t a fast back. He is. But his initial acceleration was lacking in 2012. He took forever to get going, requiring too many steps to get a full head of steam. His short stride suddenly began to make him look smaller than he is (6-foot-0, 220 pounds), and resulted in Mathews running into piles and...running in place. Perhaps it’s because he missed out on so much conditioning time in camp and the preseason.
Mathews didn’t go down at the first sign of contact, but he scarcely went through it, either. Too often, his legs would move, but his body wouldn’t. He rarely emerged from the first wave of defenders with extra yards, and didn’t come close to breaking enough tackles (only 16 by Pro Football Focus’ count). He wasn’t afraid to take on linebackers, it’s just that when he did, he almost always lost.
Neither Mathews’ cuts nor vision are any better than “average,” while his feet could be considered “poor.” Mathews lost his footing with troubling frequency in 2012. He wore down as games progressed. On his 1st-10th carries of any given game, Mathews averaged 4.2 yards. 11-20? 3.6. 21-30...? An embarrassing 2.0.
Mathews also wore down as the season wore on, losing one-on-ones at a far greater rate while averaging just 3.2 yards per carry over his final 89 totes. That’s after he averaged 4.4 on his first 85.
If there was one obvious positive, it was Mathews’ receiving ability. He’s deceptive but deliberate when leaking out on screens, and has soft hands. He pulled in 39-of-56 targets from Philip Rivers, with the vast majority of their misconnections being the fault of his quarterback.