When the San Diego Chargers did not address the vacancy at running back during free agency, it was obvious that would become one of the top priorities in the 2015 draft. Most of the Chargers’ faithful cheered when the front office moved up two spots, selecting Wisconsin Badger Melvin Gordon with their No. 1 pick.
Telesco and company found it paramount to give up their fourth-round pick in ’15 (big surprise) and fifth-round selection in ’16 to ensure that no one received the right to signing the electrifying Gordon other than the Bolts.
At the University of Wisconsin Gordon rewrote the NCAA record books. In 2014, Gordon led the Nation in rushing (2,587 yards), yards from scrimmage (2,740 yards), rushing touchdowns (29), touchdowns from scrimmage (32), rushing attempts (343) and yards per attempt (7.8). Gordon was a unanimous selection for All-American and All-Big-Ten First-team honors, as well as winning the Doak Walker Award given to the Nation’s best running back.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Gordon was the picture of durability during his days at Wisconsin. After receiving a medical redshirt for suffering a groin injury during his freshman year in 2011, Gordon did not miss a game due to injury the remaining three years he spent on campus. A stellar 2014 season was capped by an Outback Bowl MVP award, additionally earning him second place in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
All of the hype surrounding Gordon upon his drafting by San Diego was well-deserved and well-received among most Chargers fans. To anticipate big things from such an elite collegiate running back was to be expected.
The reality of his pro career through seven games has not been as rosy.
Contributing factors to Gordon’s limited success can be traced to multiple things; an ankle injury has limited his effectiveness in games. The Chargers have been slowly working Gordon into the offense with a running-back-by-committee approach alongside Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver. The Bolts’ offensive line has once again been decimated by injuries. Ball security has also affected his playing time. To date, Gordon has fumbled four times, losing three. In three years at Wisconsin, he fumbled 12 times, losing seven. Gordon had 631 carries during that time. In San Diego, he’s carried the ball 85 times, yet still putting the ball on the carpet at an alarming rate.
It goes without saying that the college game and the pro game are two completely different animals. The defenses are faster, the players hit harder and the game is played at a much higher level.
Nonetheless, fundamentals, like ball security, don’t change. In college, it equated to one fumble every 53 carries. In the pros, it’s an alarming one fumble per every 21 carries. Gordon’s recent fumble issues, and nagging ankle injury, are the most likely reasons why he didn’t enter Sunday’s Raiders’ game until midway through the third quarter.
Despite the growing pains of being a high-profile draft pick in the NFL, Gordon is fifth among rookies in rushing with 328 yards. The Chargers find themselves with a 2-5 record, clinging to slim playoff hopes after an embarrassing home loss to the Raiders.
How does San Diego right the ship and get Gordon on track?
Two simple changes can achieve both purposes.
Abandon the running-back-by-committee approach
Gordon has shown he is capable of being an every-down back at the collegiate level. Let him prove he is capable of being an every-down back in the pros. To achieve this, Mike McCoy and those responsible for the gameplan on Sundays must to be willing to give Gordon the ball. In the last two games, Gordon has carried the ball seven times each. He has averaged 14 carries over the five previous games.
Gordon has to do his job and step up his game in respects to ball security, pass protection and route running. McCoy and offensive coordinator Frank Reich have to fully commit to the running game, giving Gordon twenty-plus carries, allowing him to be the punishing running back that he was in college.
Any running back will tell you being in on every down allows them to get into a rhythm, which helps them run better. Woodhead and Oliver can still be inserted on passing downs to spell Gordon when he needs a rest.
The second solution is presented in the form of a question.
What did Gordon have during his record-breaking seasons as a Wisconsin Badger that he does not have in the pros?
Get Melvin a capable fullback
Gordon accomplished all the gaudy records mentioned above — and a lot more — playing in a traditional Big-Ten power-running scheme. The Badgers almost exclusively ran I-formation with a fullback leading the way, opening the first crack in the defensive line. Gordon was able to use his explosiveness to get through the crack and accumulate yardage at an astounding clip. No back in NCAA history has more than Gordon’s 7.9 yards per carry average over his career. Using that scheme, Gordon is the fastest running back in NCAA history to 2,000 yards. He did it in only 241 carries.
If it ain’t broke…
With the Chargers, Gordon has been the single back on most of his plays.
We’ve watched as he’s shuffled his feet at the line, waiting for that first crack to open. It has been tough sledding for the rookie behind a patchwork offensive line struggling to open running lanes. As a result, Gordon is only averaging slightly above 40 yards per game.
After three-plus years of not having to wait, he’s getting stopped at or behind the line because his downhill running style isn’t conducive to waiting for a lane.
We’ve also seen that when he’s able to turn the corner along the sidelines he has a phenomenal second gear, along with the ability to accelerate for huge gains. Sadly, those moments have been few and far between. It will remain that way until the offensive philosophy changes.
The fullback is a dying breed in the NFL. There are no great fullbacks left, but you don’t need a great fullback to achieve the desired result.
There are plenty of free agent fullbacks who would love nothing more than to sign for the veteran’s minimum (approximately 800-900k depending on years of service) and run into the defensive line looking for contact. Henry Hynoski, Frank Summers, John Conner, Zach Boren and Jed Collins are all experienced fullbacks who would welcome the opportunity for an NFL paycheck.
Establishing a running game takes pressure off of quarterback Philip Rivers.He has already taken a beating this year. Rivers has been sacked 18 times. The Chargers have the No. 1 passing offense and the 29th rushing offense in the NFL through seven weeks because the coaches won’t commit fully to Gordon. A solid running attack keeps Rivers healthy, opening opportunities down the field with play action. But the running game must first be established prior to play action making sense, much less being viable in tricking the defense into deciding whether or not to commit to one or the other.
Forcing Rivers to throw 123 times in the last two games is an indictment of the lack of a consistent, effective running game. Continuing to force Rivers to shoulder that heavy a load will result in fans seeing the same beaten, battered QB we saw limping around at the end of last season.
The Chargers need to do no more than look east of the Mississippi at Gordon’s draft-class counterpart, Todd Gurley, to see what the reward could be. Many considered Gordon better than Gurley. The difference is that in St. Louis, Gurley is getting 19 carries per game and has garnered 442 yards in the four games he’s played. The Rams trust their workhorse, and San Diego needs to do the same.
The window is still open for a turnaround and postseason run with an (on paper) easy remaining schedule, including five division games on tap. The window will shut fast if no change is made soon.
At this point, there is nothing left to lose.
It’s time to release the Kraken. Get Gordon a fullback, let him carry the rock, stacking wins.
What do you think Bolt Nation? Leave your thoughts below.
The Greg One