SAN DIEGO -- They talk as if they’ve been at this for years, about chemistry and a connection and that feel you don’t really understand unless you’re out there on the field, lined up to run a route. They are Philip Rivers and Danny Woodhead, quarterback and running back who’s also sort of a receiver, and these two just get each other, or so they say.
And it’s all really lovely, how much these guys seem to genuinely connect, but you kind of want to interrupt, and then it dawns on Woodhead.
“Oh,” he begins. “It was just one year.”
These two Chargers speak as if they’ve been playing together much longer. They connect on the field as if it’s been a few years, not a few months, which makes the whole thing that much more impressive. Woodhead arrived in San Diego in 2013, after three seasons in New England, along with new head coach Mike McCoy and a revamped offense. It was a fresh start, but the Chargers started out slow. By December, though, they were the NFL’s hottest team, due in large part to their offense, which included Woodhead in the midst of a breakout season.
He won’t call it that, though. The seventh-year veteran doesn’t speak in such absolutes. “I felt like I just tried to do what was asked,” Woodhead said. “I had more catches than I’ve had. I don’t base my production as a player off of just that. You have to block. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into playing running back. I did everything I could, and we’ll leave it at that. I don’t want to say, Oh, I had a great year, or this, or that. I tried to do my job, and that was it.”
After going undrafted out of Chadron State -- that’s in the bustling metropolis of Chadron, Neb., population 5,844 -- Woodhead cracked his way into the NFL by knowing his role, knowing he had to be able to do everything. Everything including, it seems, reading his quarterback’s mind after just a few weeks together.
“A guy like that, that you do throw to a lot out of the backfield, having that feel,” Rivers said, “it’s not running a route like you teach on a blackboard. It’s, ‘Hey, me and you saw the same thing, like we’re in the backyard.’ He brought that element, and shoot, it was big.”
In 2012 with the Patriots, Woodhead lined up for 456 snaps, compared to 556 in 2013 with the Chargers. He attributes his improved numbers simply to playing more, but that’s hardly the case. In San Diego, coaches have used Woodhead more freely, and he’s shouldered a bit more of the offensive burden behind first-string running back Ryan Mathews.
Mathews, who rushed for 1,255 yards in 2012, often found himself turning to his new teammate last season for advice in the passing game. How did you catch that? What are you looking for when you run that route? Suddenly, the 12th pick in the 2010 draft was seeking counsel from a player who’d gone undrafted two years before him, and even after a year playing next to Woodhead, Mathews still finds himself impressed.
“Philip’s a smart, smart individual about the game,” Mathews said. “He’s the smartest guy on the team, and Danny, he’s up there, too. I think that’s where they get the connection from. They see the same thing. Sometimes Danny will run a ridiculous route, and I’m like, ‘What did you just run?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t know. I just did my own thing.’ And then he caught the ball.”
In July, the Chargers inked 29-year-old to a two-year extension, which will run through 2016. After a season in which he set career bests in yards from scrimmage (1,034), touchdowns (eight), receptions (76) and receiving yards (605), it was a fitting reward, especially after Woodhead finished second among running backs in receptions (Pierre Thomas had 77) and receiving yards (Jamaal Charles had 693). In fact, last season, only Charles and Woodhead finished with 400+ rushing yards and 600+ receiving yards. And in the past five years, only Woodhead, Charles, Ray Rice, Arian Foster and Darren Sproles have reached that mark, putting Woodhead in the company of Pro Bowlers and Super Bowl champions.
“I’ve always done a lot of route-running and catching the ball,” Woodhead said. “It’s something I obviously have known how to do. But we just took it game by game, and I ended up catching more balls. It was just a lot more opportunities to do things with the ball.”
So no, the Chargers didn’t find some hidden potential or discover the secret to Danny Woodhead; they simply gave him a chance to be something more. “I think he probably always had it in him,” Rivers explained, “but he was just more a part of things week-to-week [here].”
Now established as one of the best backup running backs in the NFL -- although that designation seems somewhat lacking given his skillset -- Woodhead has security in San Diego, along with a real shot at making the playoffs, just as he’s done in every other season of his career. He’s gotten used to winning, gotten used to surprising, except now, six years in, the surprise is looking a lot more like reality.