Welcome, one and all, to part three of my four part journey through the Chargers’ offense.

If you’re new to the series, take a look at parts one (offensive line) and two (Philip Rivers). They’re not integral to understanding today’s offering, but I’d like to think they’re worthy of a read.

For those that are green to the series, just commit one theme to memory before moving forward: the Chargers’ offense is mired in utter chaos heading into 2013, and we’re sifting through the rubble in search of answers.

Part three was perhaps the most difficult to compile since lead Ryan Mathews remains one of football’s greatest mysteries. I donned my detective’s garb and tried to answer some of the many questions surrounding the San Diego’s backfield.

The Ryan Mathews Band

The name of the segment may engender the sweet sounds of “Crush” and “Everyday”, but the cacophony emanating from the halfback spot in 2012 was more of the ear-splitting, garage band jam session variety.

Such a prompt attack on Ryan Mathews is a small tip of the cap to fans- fantasy owners and otherwise- that pinned their hopes on the broken shoulders of a man that only returned a single touchdown and less than 750 rushing yards last season.

The injuries were one thing. The performance, or lack thereof, was quite another. 25 carries for 65 yards (week 16), 17 carries for 54 yards (week 10) and 22 carries for 74 yards (week 6) were the sort of ugly lines that supporters came to take as the norm. Mathews became accustomed to mediocrity in 2012 as he was repeatedly forced to the ground near the line of scrimmage, averaging a paltry 3.8 yards per carry.

There’s no need to continue piling on his disappointing season, and so we’ll launch into the meat of the argument. Is Ryan Mathews an overhyped and underwhelming nobody, or the all-purpose monster that continues to make pundits salivate? Heckle me if you must, but the answer lies somewhere in between. From there we can divine the amount of opportunity available for backups to earn their own statistical stripes.

One might think that the offensive line allowed as much backfield pressure in the running game as it did in pass protection last season, but in fact the second and third running levels were the sites of struggle. According to Football Outsiders, the Mathews was only stuffed (tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage) 17% of the time in 2012, good for the sixth lowest number in the league. However, when analyzing runs between five to ten yards (second level) and ten yards plus (third level), the Bolts ranked 27th and 30th respectively in adjusted yards. Some of the trouble can be attributed to a lead-footed front line, but when a runner breaks past the initial onslaught at the line of scrimmage he becomes largely responsible for grinding out extra yardage and making defenders miss.

Next year’s line appears similarly sluggish, save for the addition of run blocking specialist D.J. Fluker. With Fluker likely posted on the right side and pass protector King Dunlap at left tackle, integrating a rightward approach seems like the easiest way to create quality running lanes. Mike McCoy will ultimately decide the plays, and he has some level of familiarity when it comes to dealing with upper echelon tackles. Ryan Clady has three Pro Bowls and two First-Team All-Pro honors to his name after manning the blind side in McCoy’s offense for the last five years.

Let’s compare the total number of carries and the percentage that went to both sides in Denver and San Diego (any leftover percentage points were measured as runs up the middle) to see if the new head coach stands to make any meaningful difference in the way of directional running. The data starts at 2010, Mathews’ first year in the league.

 

Year

2010

2011

2012

Chargers % Left

26%

21%

25%

Broncos % Left

27%

14%

20%

Chargers % Right

23%

23%

22%

Broncos % Right

27%

18%

22%


Clearly, the Chargers’ data holds much more consistent than their Rocky Mountain counterparts. Blame a year-by-year rotation of Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow (of course he found his way into an article on Chargers running backs), and Peyton Manning for the discrepancy.

The jumpy numbers bring us back to the on-the-fly flexibility that made McCoy such a hot name in the coaching world this offseason. Remove Tebow’s random data-skewing antics from the table and the percent difference between 2010 and 2012 is still significantly larger in the Mile High City between Orton and Manning. There may exist a talent gulf between the two passers, but their styles are comparable, and yet saw entirely different rushing attacks in the span of only two years. The league may favor the passing game as a whole, but the Chargers won’t be afraid to pound the run when needed.

A fresh playcalling approach should help Mathews, just as it will aid the passing game.

One of the few similarities between former head coach Norv Turner and McCoy is their usage of their lead runners. With three vastly different quarterbacks controlling the offense, primary backs under McCoy managed to average 233 carries per season over the last three years, compared to only 188 for Mathews. When Mathews’ missed time is taken into account, the average stands only slightly in Denver’s favor (190).

On the receiving end, the data is a bit more diverse. The Chargers have shelled out an average of 47 targets per year to their lead back while the Broncos only allotted 33 screens and dump offs per season. Mathews is a better receiving option than either Willis McGahee or Knowshon Moreno (both of which are stellar receiving backs), so the number of passing touches are unlikely to drop dramatically. McCoy values the change of pace that comes with combination of short passes power runs game to force defenses into the box, and Mathews appears tailor-made to handle the diverse volume of touches.

It was only a matter of time before we approached the million dollar sticking point in the Chargers’ backfield; Ryan Mathews’ health. After three years as a pro, the former first-round pick has never played more than 14 games in a season, and has averaged less than 13. His injuries never seem horrifically serious- a chipped clavicle here, a bum ankle there- but they always have a way of derailing an otherwise electrifying all-purpose runner. For the sake of imagination, if nothing else, let’s take a look at Mathews’ numbers these past three seasons had he played the full 16 game schedule.

 

Year

2010

2011

2012

Rushing Yards

904

1247

943

Receiving Yards

193

520

336

Touchdowns

9

7

1

 

He can dash around the edge in space, he can provide an excellent dump off option in the passing game, and he can drive past linebackers in close quarters. If only he could stay out of the trainers’ room. The end zone seemed like a mystical land for Mathews in 2012, but the numbers otherwise tell the story of a supremely valuable cog for any offense. Besides, a presumably more efficient offense will necessitate more red zone runs, of which Mathews was given a paltry 15 last season (Arian Foster led the league with 80).

Assuming malady is never advisable in the world of sports, but in this case it seems far more ridiculous to think that Ryan Mathews can stay on the field for every week of the regular season. On that basis, his projections will take a beating, and inversely boost the line of backup Danny Woodhead.

Gimpiness aside, the combined four rushing touchdowns compiled by San Diego’s running backs last season was alarmingly futile. Chargers’ brass tired of former backup Jackie Battle’s inefficient, plodding ways and decided to look elsewhere for reserve backs. Ultimately, management turned to Danny Woodhead to stem the tide, a former Belichickian hero in New England for his constant production in limited snaps. Woodhead compiled 926 total yards on only 140 touches in 2010 and scored seven touchdowns last season in an offense as crowded as Radio City Music Hall at the end of April.

There was about as much consistency at running back as there was at quarterback in Denver’s offense under Mike McCoy, and that is to say none at all. Taking the most recent example may be best in this situation, since it involves a starting back that only showed up for two-thirds of a season and a worthy backup that ate up carries in his wake. Knowshon Moreno’s career was brought back from the dead after Willis McGahee tore his MCL in week 10 and opened up a Refrigerator Perry-sized hole at running back behind one of the league’s best offensive lines. Fans and experts expected very little from the former first round pick given his lackadaisical offerings as a full-time starter in 2010. Six weeks later, Moreno was sitting atop a bounty of 692 yards and four touchdowns that surely contributed to McGahee’s dismissal the following June.

Woodhead is not as complete a back as Moreno, but McCoy’s confidence in a backup that wasn’t even on the active roster for half of the season is encouraging. McGahee only registered more than twenty carries three times in 2012: Moreno did so five times in six games.

If and when Ryan Mathews comes up lame next season, Danny Woodhead will enter the huddle with a vengeance, and his coach will have no qualms with letting him loose on opposing defenses as if he were a feature back. Woodhead continues to look better and better as a high volume handcuff with such turbulent surroundings.

That about wraps up our considerations before making projections. Mathews seems to fit the new flavor of the offense well and is unlikely to repeat his nightmarish 2012 campaign, but his health remains largely in question. In the likely case of injury, Danny Woodhead should flourish as a pass-catching red zone threat that can bust into the second level multiple times per contest. The Chargers backfield stands to improve in 2013, but the results will sit safely in the range of solid-but-unspectacular at year’s end.

What To Make Of Ryan Mathews: 195 ATT, 860 rushing YDs, 230 receiving YDs, 5 TDs

What To Make Of Danny Woodhead: 105 ATT, 450 rushing YDs, 240 receiving YDs, 4 TDs


Previously: 

A Less Offensive Line

Bridging Philip Rivers

Up Next:

The Wild World Of Wide Receivers And Tight Ends