Giving Ryan Mathews a Second Chance
I’ve somehow completely avoided doing an in-depth analysis on Ryan Mathews throughout the offseason. Much of that has to do with me wanting to see how he would perform in the preseason, but some of it, to be perfectly honest, has to do with backlash; backlash that nobody wants to deal with.
If I make even just one positive comment about Ryan Mathews, I know I’m going to hear about it. It doesn’t even have to be football related, either. “Hey guys, I heard Ryan Mathews makes a really good parmesan crusted chicken dish,” I’ll say.
“Yeah, if he doesn’t break his collarbone getting it out of the oven,” someone will respond.
If you’re going to be a hater – if you’re going to deny any ounce of positivity regarding Ryan Mathews' being – you may not want to read on. The words written here may hurt your eyes.
However, if you’re an open-minded fantasy owner who rarely says, “I’ll never own this player no matter what!” – read on. You’re about to gain an advantage in your fantasy football league.
Your Ryan Mathews Collarbone Jokes Aren’t Funny Anymore
Let’s get it out of the way: Ryan Mathews broke more collarbones than scored touchdowns last season.
Really, that was funny in January, but the 2013 season doesn’t care nearly as much about the statistic. It’s a new season, and Mathews’ collarbones are in tip-top shape.
Before we get into the Chargers running back's deeper history, let’s dig into how he performed just last year. And no, I’m not talking about average yards per carry numbers. Instead, let’s take a look at his true rushing efficiency, as noted by numberFire’s rushing net expected points metric.
In essence, this value shows us how many real points a runner added to his team’s scoring output throughout the season. It takes game situation and field position into consideration, too. Rather than being overly dependent on yardage totals, rush NEP metrics can give us a better idea as to how valuable a particular player is for his team.
Last year, Ryan Mathews rushing net expected points total was -14.42. In other words, Mathews lost 14.42 points over the course of the season for the Chargers. On a per attempt basis, this rushing net expected points total was -.08.
Now, that shouldn’t really mean much to you without comparison. Clearly Mathews wasn’t good, as he was losing points for his team each time he touched the rock. But keep in mind; since it’s difficult for running backs to contribute large chunks of yardage at a time, the positions’ NEP totals are typically low. That’s why rank and comparison is important.
Mathews’ -.08 rushing net expected points per attempt in 2012 was actually second best among the five Chargers running backs, just behind Ronnie Brown (-.04). And it placed him right around Chris Johnson and Trent Richardson in terms of rank. Both of those backs had a -.07 rush NEP per play last year, just .01 better than Mathews. In other words, they just weren’t that much better.
“Woah, woah woah,” you’re saying to yourself. “Ryan Mathews scored just one touchdown though!”
Yup, and this takes all of that into consideration. Touchdowns aren’t the end-all to running back production. The efficiency metrics give us a better idea of how good these runners actually were, without relying on scoring numbers.
This isn’t to say Ryan Mathews was great last season, but stop thinking that he was completely worthless. He had his struggles, but so did many other running backs; running backs who are being drafted much higher than him in 2013.
Why Do We Forget About Mathews' 2011 Season?
You know, it wasn’t long ago either when Ryan Mathews was a top-10 running back in fantasy. Remember that? It was 2011 – two years ago – and Mathews ranked right below Michael Turner and Marshawn Lynch in our pretend game. He finished the season with 1,546 total yards and six touchdowns, catching 50 balls through the air.
Mathews finished 12th among the 51 100-plus attempt runners in terms of rushing net expected points (4.54) that year. On a per attempt basis, the polarizing back was the 13th-best, and he was the third-ranked runner among those with 200 or more attempts.
Guys, Ryan Mathews was really good in 2011. Let's not conveniently forget about that.
Recency Bias at its Finest
Has he really burned you? Really? He’s played three NFL seasons – one where he was a rookie, one where he was a giant disappointment, and one where he was a giant, pleasant surprise.
Perhaps this massive conflict between fantasy owners and Ryan Mathews has to do with Recency Bias – the psychological phenomenon where we tend to weigh recent events more heavily towards a conclusion than ones that occurred in the distant past.
We remember Ryan Mathews, most recently, as a bust. After being selected at the end of Round 2 last year (with a fracture clavicle), Mathews finished the season with a lower standard-scoring running back ranking than Joique Bell and Danny Woodhead. He was a bust, through and through. There's no denying that.
But it’s not as though this costly draft position came from nowhere. After all, the only way you can become a bust is if you were highly touted in the first place. I mean, there was an article on KFFL.com in May of 2012 titled, “Ryan Mathews Could be the No.1 Fantasy Running Back This Year”. And that's not the only one - trust me. We heard it from the San Diego coaching staff, too, as ex-head coach Norv Turner was quoted around the same time saying that Mathews was “capable of leading the NFL in rushing.”
Some Google searching will produce dozens and dozens of quotes and articles about Ryan Mathews’ amazing 2012 potential. A year later, we’re talking about not drafting him. Ever. At any draft position.
Just remember: Ryan Mathews has played in three NFL seasons. Not just one. He was once - and by once, I mean a year ago - regarded as one of the up-and-coming stars in the league. Now, not a single person wants a part of him. Because of one NFL season.
There’s Risk, but There’s Also Reward
Of course Ryan Mathews’ potential isn’t all butterflies, unicorns and rainbows. He’s been an injury risk since high school, is playing behind a poor offensive line and now is under a new coaching regime that doesn’t have Norv Turner-like ties to him.
But I’m not asking for you to buy Ryan Mathews at his 2012 value. Last year, the Chargers fragile runner was the 13th back selected, and that was with the notion that he’d miss time due to injury. This year, Mathews is being selected as a fantasy team’s RB3 – a lineup spot that’s incredibly flexible.
Head coach Mike McCoy is already praising Mathews for his preseason work, and NFL.com Around the League writer, Chris Wesseling, has noted that “Mathews has recaptured his 2011 form."
You don't want some of that in the fifth?
We have Mathews listed as our 20th-best standard-scoring running back for the 2013 season. He’s a risk, but one that could pay off. After all, his number one comparable match is 2003’s Tiki Barber, who rushed 278 times for over 1,200 yards. Not bad for an RB3.
Please, please, please look at the situation with Ryan Mathews objectively. While your feelings towards him may only be filled with hate, remember that he has been a fantasy stud before. Remember that he is still a young runner. And most importantly, remember that any starting running back in the NFL has value at some point in a fantasy draft.
Give Ryan Mathews a chance. Or, if you have it in you, a second chance.