David White: Ryan Mathews' body keeps cutting into building of his NFL body of work

Special to The BeeJanuary 11, 2014 

Ryan Mathews' injury issues have carried over from his Fresno State days right into the pros. But when on the field for the San Diego Chargers, he is one of the NFL's elite backs.

DENIS POROY — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Do a Google search on "Ryan Mathews" and you learn all sorts of fun medical facts about the Chargers running back.

Mathews is from Fresno State, where he once hurt his knee and got a concussion.

Mathews made the Pro Bowl as an NFL sophomore, despite missing game time with minor groin and thumb injuries -- because all minor injuries are minor when they don't happen to you.

What wasn't minor was how he opened and closed the 2012 season with two different broken collarbones.

Mathews ran for 53 yards in his NFL playoff debut last week ... before he twisted his left ankle something nasty and could not go on. Because, of course he did.

Did Google mention "Ryan Mathews" and "injury history" have become a search engine couple?

"Just taking it day by day," Mathews said this week, as he got ready for today's Chargers-Broncos feast by watching practice in an ankle brace.

Every time the former Bulldogs superstar is about to take off as an NFL force, he gets dragged back to the ground by the Injury Prone label that doubles as a ball and chain.

We know Mathews has the makings of a great NFL running back by the way he ran for 1,808 yards in three years at Fresno State. We saw the 12th overall pick of the 2010 draft run up 1,091 yards in his second season, straight into the Pro Bowl.

This season, we saw Mathews lead the NFL with six 100-yard games, and a career-high 1,255 yards. He did not miss a game to injury for the first time since, best we can tell, ever.

Today is the day Mathews should be showing a supper-time audience why the Chargers anointed him as LaDainian Tomlinson's heir to the backfield throne. Instead, he's listed as questionable after a week of fielding media questions about why he always gets hurt and more hurt.

"Like I said, I'm just taking it day by day," Mathews said.

Last week's playoff game showed all that's gone right and wrong for Mathews in the NFL. For 13 carries, he was a beast against Cincinnati. The Bengals weren't going to stop Mathews. But then, they didn't have to. Mathews' medical chart always stops Mathews. When his ankle gave out, was anyone really surprised?

Maybe he isn't durable enough to make it in the concussive land of the NFL. Maybe his punishing running style only serves to punish his own body as much as it does the tacklers he keeps pounding into. Or, who knows, maybe Mathews is just the unluckiest player this side of Darren McFadden.

Whatever the case, something has to change or things will never change.

If that means learning to (gulp) not run into contact, or knowing when to go down, or giving up the practice of choosing head-on collisions for the sake of head-on collisions, then Mathews needs to adjust.

He is too good to be playing with a limp. He is too valuable to be taking one for the team so often.

Mathews is why the Chargers got this far. His absence will be why the Chargers won't get much further, because the best way to beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos is to shorten the game with a clock-consuming back. Someone like Mathews.

"It's Week 18, Week 19? You're not going to be 100%," Mathews said. "There's a difference between playing hurt and playing injured."

Unfortunately, Mathews knows the difference too well. It's up to him to change his Google history.

The columnist can be reached at bydw@sbcglobal.net or @bydavidwhite on Twitter.

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