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By AP Photo/John Raoux
By MICHAEL LEV, Orange County Register
SAN DIEGO — It isn't easy being The Guy After The Guy. Just ask the quarterbacks who followed John Elway in Denver and Dan Marino in Miami. Or ask West grad Ryan Mathews.
The Chargers' running back was supposed to be "The Next LT." At least that was the neat little narrative. The team released LaDainian Tomlinson in February 2010, when he was 30 years old and on the downside of a brilliant, Hall of Fame-caliber career. Two months later, then-GM A.J. Smith traded up 16 spots in the first round to select Mathews, who had rushed for 1,808 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior at Fresno State.
Mathews idolized Tomlinson, so it seemed like a dream scenario. But living up to that standard proved impossible.
"There was a weight on my shoulders," Mathews acknowledged after practice Wednesday. "It was big shoes to fill. I think I just got away from the fun of the game and stressed myself out about not being able to do what he was doing. This year I just made it a point to have fun, just enjoy the game."
After three seasons marred by injuries, fumbles and unfulfilled expectations, Mathews entered 2013 with a different mindset. Instead of trying to be the second coming of Tomlinson, Mathews endeavored to be the best Ryan Mathews he could be. Freed of that psychological burden, he appears to have put his career back on course.
Mathews rushed for more than 100 yards in back-to-back Chargers victories in Weeks 6 and 7 -- his first 100-yard outings since Dec. 11, 2011. Mathews' touchdown against Jacksonville in Week 7 was his first since October of last year.
Heading into Sunday's game at Washington, Mathews looks like a different player than the one who frustrated Chargers fans and fantasy owners for the better part of 31/2 seasons.
Mathews isn't worried about a lot of things he used to worry about. Running backs coach Ollie Wilson said Mathews always has been his own worst critic, the first to lament his mistakes, and it could take as long as a week for him to emerge from a funk.
"What's happening (now) is, we're shortening that span," Wilson said. "It was always from week to week. Now it's from day to day."
Wilson attributes the change to Mathews' maturity. Wilson sees it in Mathews' mannerisms and the way he interacts with teammates. His actions after the Jacksonville game also were telling.
Despite rushing for 110 yards and the put-away touchdown, Mathews declined multiple interview requests. He suggested to reporters that they instead interview the offensive linemen who had given him the room to run.
"Those comments he made were pretty special. They've developed a little bond," Wilson said of Mathews and his blockers. "They want to work hard for him, and he wants to work hard for them."
Effort never was an issue for Mathews, 26, whose mother taught him the value of hard work. Tricia gave birth to Ryan when she was a teenager. The daughter of a drug addict, she ended up on her own for several months, mother and son living out of her car. Tricia eventually moved in with her grandmother in Tehachapi, and worked several jobs to support her son.
Mathews viewed the humble and productive Tomlinson as something of a father figure, according to an ESPN "E:60" story about LT's successor. If anything, Mathews tried too hard upon arriving in San Diego. He describes his approach today as "trying to help my team out as much as I can" while still playing "smart."
"I haven't been trying to do too much," Mathews said. That jibes with first-year coach Mike McCoy's desire for his backs to run "downhill" -- taking what's there instead of trying to turn every rush into a big play.
Aside from a concussion, Mathews has avoided the injuries that derailed him earlier in his pro career; as many in the media have noted, Mathews had more broken collarbones (two) than touchdowns (one) last season. He also has improved his ball security. Mathews fumbled 12 times in his first three seasons; he has only one through seven games.
"I don't think it's one thing," Wilson said of Mathews' improvement. "I think it's a lot of different things."
The biggest thing was accepting a certain truth.
"No one's ever going to be as good as LT," said Mathews, who finally seems OK with that.