Chargers head coach Norv Turner talked this offseason about making Ryan Mathews his workhorse back, a guy capable of upwards of 300 touches in 2012.
"I personally think he’s ready to take that next step," Turner told the San Diego Union-Tribune in May.
It took all of one carry for some of that optimism to go out the window. Mathews broke his right clavicle on San Diego's third offensive play vs. Green Bay on Thursday night, an injury that will require surgery and is expected to sideline Mathews for four to six weeks.
That timeline puts Mathews' status for the start of the season in jeopardy -- San Diego's Monday night regular-season opener at Oakland falls on Sept. 10, exactly one month after Mathews goes under the knife. A six-week absence could leave Mathews out of action for that game, Week 2 vs. Tennessee and Week 3 against Atlanta.
Even if Mathews gets back on the field in early September, you can bet that Turner is revisiting, at least internally, his plan to rely almost exclusively on him.
The precedent for a one-back-heavy system is there in San Diego -- LaDainian Tomlinson averaged 320 carries and almost 380 total touches in his nine season with the Chargers, the last three of which came in Turner's tenure. But questions remain about Mathews' ability to carry that load. The 24-year-old has missed six games over his first two seasons because of injury.
Mathews did carry the ball 222 times last season and came out of the backfield for 50 receptions, so getting him to 300 touches is not a huge stretch. Keeping him healthy, as we've seen, might be.
Mathews' latest ailment also drives home the reality of San Diego's thin running back situation. The Chargers lost reliable bruiser Mike Tolbert in free agency and replaced him with Ronnie Brown, who's coming off a career-low 42 carries with Philadelphia. The year prior, while in Miami, Brown averaged just 3.7 yards per carry on 200 rush attempts.
He may still be the No. 1 option now, though Curtis Brinkley (30 carries for 101 yards in 2011) led San Diego in rushing with 42 yards and a touchdown in the 21-13 preseason win over Green Bay.
Neither Brown nor Brinkley is capable of fully replacing Mathews; and you can say the same about Jackie Battle and rookie Edwin Baker, a couple of other options. So while we're still early in the preseason, Mathews' broken clavicle threatens to push San Diego yet again toward a slow start in September. At the very least it will force the Chargers to find out exactly what they have behind Mathews on the depth chart, because it already looks probable that Mathews will need some help come the regular season.