ALEXANDER: Chargers’ Ryan Mathews settling in

San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews, left, playing against Miami on Oct. 2, says he has stopped trying to fill LaDainian Tomlinson’s shoes and is instead focusing on what he can do.
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Ryan Mathews’ biggest problem, during a rocky rookie season in the NFL? Maybe it’s that he was too aware of his predecessor.

Simply put, the more he felt he needed to be LaDainian Tomlinson, the less chance he had to adequately fill his spot in the Chargers’ backfield.

“He came in last year and he was expecting to be All World, to replace LT,” said fellow running back Mike Tolbert. “Realistically, nobody can replace LT. You just have to come in and do what you do.

“He’s learned and he’s more patient now, and obviously it’s paying off for him.”

Mathews’ first season was a litany of over exuberant expectations followed by fumbles followed by injuries. As an NFL sophomore, he has become a greater asset to the 3-1 Chargers in each facet of the game.

Going into today’s game at Denver, he’s fourth in the league in total yards from scrimmage (542), he’s averaging 4.7 yards a carry and 13.4 per reception, and his blocking has improved considerably.

It’s not just the numbers, either. He has shown more of the breakaway ability that general manager A.J. Smith envisioned when he traded up to draft Mathews 12th in 2010 out of Fresno State. Mathews has had six gains of 20 yards or more, and last Sunday against Miami he had a 42-yard gain on a catch to set up a third-quarter touchdown, then ripped off runs of 20 and 13 yards on back-to-back plays to start the next possession.

“What I really liked about what Ryan did was in the first half he had two or three runs where he didn’t exactly see it the way he should have seen it,” head coach Norv Turner said. “And when we came back for the second half we ran similar plays or the same play and he hit it exactly the way he should hit it. He learned from both plays.”

After that game, in which he finished with 81 yards on 16 carries and 68 on five catches, he pronounced himself unsatisfied with his effort. Asked at midweek if he felt he was nearing the top of his game, this was his answer:

“Not even close. I’ve still got a long way to go.”

Mathews acknowledged that he didn’t do himself any favors as a rookie by letting himself be overwhelmed.

“It’s just a whirlwind,” he said. “Everything’s happening so fast that your mind’s working a thousand miles an hour. You’re just overworking yourself, just over thinking, and not really being able to play.”

And yes, a certain amount of that involved wanting too much to fulfill those unrealistic expectations.

“I think he thought about it a little too much,” Tolbert said. “Now he’s let it go, and he’s learned from it enough to know that he can’t go be (anything) that he’s not.”

Some of Mathews’ evolution is the natural process of greater familiarity and comfort after a year in the Chargers’ system.

“I’ve always thought that maybe other than quarterback, as a rookie, running back may be the hardest position to transition into,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Maybe not in every offense, but in this offense there’s a lot asked of running backs in both protection and obviously catching the ball in the backfield.

“If it hadn’t been for some injuries he had to deal with he probably would have been playing last year. And he did. Late in the year at Denver last (season) he had his best game.”

True. Against the Broncos in the Jan. 2 season finale, on the same Mile High field he’ll be on today, Mathews had 120 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns.

By then, presumably, he realized he didn’t have to be the next LT.

Being the first Ryan Mathews, if he handles it right, should be sufficient.

Reach Jim Alexander at

Jim Alexander

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