It’s premature and perhaps unreasonable to place the two Chargers running backs in the pantheon of great partners. It’s not hyperbole, though, to say Mathews and Tolbert could make a strong argument for being one of the best backfield combinations in San Diego history just by repeating last year for a few more seasons.
Mathews and Tolbert combined for 18 rushing touchdowns in 2010 and became the first duo in Chargers history with at least seven scores in the same season. Each rushed for more than 600 yards, the first time a pair of Chargers have done so since Marion Butts and Natrone Means in 1993.
Still, things didn’t go according to plan in 2010, as first Mathews and then Tolbert missed time with injury. The young backs still are working on things like pass protection, catching out of the backfield and ball security.
Head Coach Norv Turner’s offense, sometimes labeled as deep-ball oriented and pass-heavy, often has relied on workhorse runners. It helped Emmitt Smith (21,579 all-purpose yards) and LaDainian Tomlinson (17,727) to some of the best statistical lines in NFL history. One thing seems apparent entering this season: Turner is open to a multi-back system.
“I don’t know if (Mathews) will be one of the leading rushers because I think the emergence of Tolbert gives us a chance to have a one-two punch,” Turner said. “Tolbert gives us a nice changeup. Obviously he’s a physical, hard-to-tackle, punishing runner and Ryan has great speed, so it’s a good situation.”
Though it makes sense to spread carries at a position with one of the greatest rates of attrition in the NFL, and multi-back systems seem to be gaining prominence without hard data, the opposite is true if you look at the numbers. From 1990 to 1999, just 28 running backs had at least one season with 300 or more carries. That figure jumped to 41 from 2000 to 2010.
Adrian Peterson (Vikings) and Chris Johnson (Titans) are obvious examples. Turner sees the featured guy vs. split-duty scenarios as a decision based on the availability of a second or third back that offers a unique skill set.
“That’s the mindset now,” Turner said of using multiple ball-carriers. “Certainly (Week 1 opponent) Minnesota hasn’t done that. Teams with that featured guy are continuing to let the featured guy run. I think if you have guys that are diverse, you can use two.”
For their part, Mathews and Tolbert see the benefits in sharing the football.
“It’s good having two different, dynamic backs,” Mathews said. “Being able to have a one-two punch is going to really wear defenses out. When one set of legs is starting to run low, you get a set of fresh legs in there. We can both take it to the house. That’s going to be hard on defenses.”
Being part of an offense that’s scored at least 400 points for an NFL-record seven consecutive seasons helps. There’s plenty of yards and touchdowns for everyone.
“The coaches know how to put players in the right position. When they call my number, I’m going to run to the best of my ability,” Tolbert said. “If not, I’m going to root Ryan on, or Frank (Summers) or Jacob (Hester), Antonio (Gates) or whoever it may be.
“Whoever has the ball in their hands, the whole team is going to root for them. Nobody is going to have a selfish attitude. ‘Give me the ball. Me, me, me!’ We don’t have that on this team.”