The year was 2014, and Melvin Gordon was soaring to become college football’s running back darling. He took that title from an injured Todd Gurley and ran with it. Then, he kept running.
Gordon led the nation in rushing yards (2,587) and touchdowns (29) during his final year of separating defenders from their jock straps for the Wisconsin Badgers. He is still behind only Barry Sanders on the list of all-time best single-season rushing-yard totals.
And if you are even in the same stratosphere as Sanders in any capacity as a running back, there’s a good chance greatness is coming. That seemed inevitable when Gordon broke the NCAA single-game rushing record with an absurd 408 yards in 2014 against Nebraska. His mark stood for all of one week, but rushing for 400-plus yards shouldn’t be possible in any world not manipulated by a video game controller.
We assumed Gordon was indeed on his way to NFL stardom after his sparkling 2014 season. We kept assuming that when he finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Then, we assumed some more when, along with Gurley, he was one of the two first-round running backs selected during the 2015 draft. That came after two straight years when the position was abandoned in the opening round.
Now, as the 2016 season approaches, we’re not assuming anymore. We’re waiting.
Gordon’s rookie year looked like what would happen if a truck carrying only large containers of salad dressing rolled over on the highway. That might not continue much longer, however, because there’s reason for hope.
It’s unfair to apply the bust label after one season and one sputtering start. So I won’t be doing that here, but I understand the impulse.
Gordon entered the league amid towering expectations after the San Diego Chargers selected him with their 15th overall pick. And he wasn’t just a first-round pick. He was coveted so highly that the Chargers traded up to secure him, trading a fourth-round pick in 2015 and a fifth-round pick in 2016 to the San Francisco 49ers.
Gordon was viewed as an instant cure for the giant, immovable ground fungus growing in San Diego’s backfield. In 2014, the Chargers scored only six rushing touchdowns while averaging 3.4 yards per carry and 85.4 per game.
But instead of injecting life into a dormant backfield, Gordon made fans reach for Gravol. He went from averaging 7.8 yards per carry over four collegiate seasons to a lowly 3.5 yards as an NFL rookie (641 yards overall).
What happened? Well, injuries happened—and not to just to Gordon.
Injuries can sometimes feel like an excuse. But in this case, they’re a crippling fact after Gordon spent much of his season running behind replacement bodies.
Adjusting to the next level without taking a step back from historically high college production is difficult enough for any rookie at any position. But the mountain ahead grows to Everest proportions when a rookie running back has to find open space behind a repeatedly broken offensive line.
That’s 19 missed games spread between three core offensive linemen.
The Chargers were then forced to use 24 different offensive line combinations throughout the season. Continuity breeds cohesion among the large men tasked with keeping other large men away from quarterbacks and running backs. When a team doesn’t have it because of injuries, spiraling performance usually follows.
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