2016 was a difficult year for a backfield that was poised for success. The Eagles committee effort looked set to thrive under Doug Pederson, as the combination of dual-threat backs, power runners and elusive rookies readied for a testing season. From a rampant day against Pittsburgh to a flurry of fumbles, inconsistency and rigidity, the Eagles backfield endured a tough year. But nobody had a more difficult season than Ryan Mathews.
The 29-year old started the season brightly against the Browns, rushing for 77 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts..but after that, things started to unravel. The Eagles committee effort flourished against the Steelers, with Smallwood and Barner scoring their first NFL scores and giving a glimpse of what could be..but would never eventually become.
Through a mix of injury battles and lack of direction, Ryan Mathews would find himself rushing for 56 yards against the Vikings one week, before carrying the ball just 4 times against the Cowboys, despite playing in 45% of Offensive snaps.
Mathews went from a lead back, to a goal line back, to a situational runner..and then back to his normal role. If anyone had their season damaged by an unstable backfield, it was the former Charger.
Mathews’ disappointing year then ended in a way that is all too familiar by now, with injury. The injury label is sticking itself harder to the shoulder of Ryan Mathews each and every season and it appears to be something he simply can’t shake, regardless of how many big runs or impressive outings he has.
To make life worse, Mathews is now entering his contract year in a crowded backfield that seems to only be getting younger. Darren Sproles announced his intentions to retire at the end of next season, which would leave Wendell Smallwood, Byron Marshall and Kenjon Barner if things were to stay as they are. The consensus is that the Eagles will try to cash in on Mathews sooner rather than later as opposed to allowing him to walk into Free agency..but the decision isn’t that simple.
Toward the end of the year, the Eagles decided to ride Mathews a little more as injuries to Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner forced a reliance on the former first round pick. Under Chip Kelly, Ryan Mathews had plenty of big plays and flashed his potential. After weeks of adjusting to a new zonal run scheme behind a very wounded offensive line, Mathews began to hit his stride once again.
Prior to his injury, Mathews had the third hottest five game period of his career. If you compare that to how he started the year, the two stat lines are binary opposites.
If you extend that streak by two, Mathews had five touchdowns in his last seven games..which puts an entirely different narrative on his 2016 season.
What’s even more impressive is that he rushed for six more first downs than he did a year ago, 122 more yards and four more 20+ yard rushes. It’s safe to say that contrary to what we may believe to be true, Mathews found a real rhythm in Pederson’s offense.
The Eagles have a clear need at running back and Ryan Mathews is hanging on to his spot in the City of Brotherly Love by a thread. With Wendell Smallwood and Byron Marshall chomping at the bit for more snaps and the possibility of a lead back being drafted in the early rounds by the Eagles, the future looks bleak. But the team should absolutely give Mathews one last lifeline, one last shot to shake the injury label and one last season to reach the efficiency many believe he can still achieve.
Even if the Eagles do decide to draft a lead running back, keeping Ryan Mathews around is an extremely wide idea. With a healthy offensive line ahead of him and the return of Lane Johnson, the zonal run scheme could only elevate further in 2017. As easy as it would be to throw a rookie running back to the wolves and pray for an Ezekiel Elliott like season, Mathews has unintentionally become the low-risk, high-reward prototype they crave.
Cutting Mathews would save cap space and is arguably a favorable move for the future of the organization if they were to spend heavily in free agency. Entering his contract year, it’s not as if the Eagles have all their chips placed on the table. But this is a running back who has proven himself in two different systems during his Eagles tenure and showed consistent effort to keep the motor running and drive for extra yards, regardless of the situation.
In a very worst case scenario, the Eagles part way with Mathews at the end of next season for whatever reason. In a best case scenario, the birds find a way to emulate the committee success of Kansas City or ways to implement some fresh faces in with the old dogs in order to create a ruthless rushing attack for one year only.
A sweet serenade to one of the best dual threat backs in the league..and a lead back who is ready to pass the torch on to the next man up. It’s that competition that will unfold over the 2017 season, but one that Ryan Mathews should absolutely steward until the end of his contract..giving the Eagles one more explosive weapon at their disposal until the curtain finally drops on the midnight green career of Ryan Mathews.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports