Patrick Causey; Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3
There is a lot of angst surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles, most of which is justified. Sam Bradford is predictably mediocre. Lane Johnson is facing a 10 game suspension and the 34-year old Jason Peters will likely regress thanks to father time, so the offensive line figures to be a mess. And save for Jordan Matthews, the wide receivers look wholly unreliable.
But those legitimate concerns are starting to distort people’s views of some otherwise talented players on this football team. The perfect example is Ryan Mathews, who was one of the lone bright spots last season for the Eagles offense.
While concerns over Mathews’ injury history are fair, some have taken it a step further, suggesting that the Eagles backfield will be a train wreck and that Mathews should be outright released by the team. But a deeper look at Mathews’ productivity and film suggests that these types of reactions are completely unjustified.
Last year, Mathews totaled 106 carries for 539 yards with six rushing touchdowns, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. While his total numbers were underwhelming, he was an highly effective runner in the limited opportunities that he received. Mathews 5.1 yards per carry ranked second in the NFL among qualifying running backs, according to ESPN.com, behind only Thomas Rawls of the Seattle Seahawks.
FootballOutsiders.com had Mathews rated as a top 10 running back in 2015 by both of its key metrics: DYAR and DVOA. As a refresher (or introduction), DYAR, or defensive adjusted yards above replacement, is a metric which FO defines as providing “the value of the performance on plays where this RB carried/caught the ball compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage,” whereas DVOA, which stands for defensive adjusted value over average, is defined as the “value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player’s performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense.”
In other words, DVOA and DYAR attempt to place value on a running back’s play compared to how an average player at that position would perform, and adjusts for the situation and quality of opponent.
As you can see in the below charts, Mathews excelled in both metrics:
DYAR Rankings for 2015
DVOA Rankings for 2015
Mathews’ ranking on this list probably surprised some of you, which is a testament to how narratives can distort our view of a player’s value. His DVOA ranking is particularly impressive, with Mathews besting the likes of Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley, and Matt Forte, three of the best running backs in the league. While we cannot completely take these rankings at face value — I don’t think anyone would argue that Mathews is a better running back than Gurley, Forte or Peterson — these numbers underscore how much we might be overlooking Mathews as a viable option this season.
(Side note: for those wondering, DeMarco Murray ranked 39th out of 44 running backs in DYAR, and ranked 40th out of 44 in DVOA).
So what makes Mathews so effective? At 6’2, 220 lbs, Mathews is often described as a physically imposing, one cut, downhill runner. And indeed, Mathews doesn’t shy away from contact, as he flashes an aggressive disposition when running the football:
But it would be a mistake to pigeon hole Mathews into the downhill, thumper roll. Mathews also has good burst for a player his size, using his 4.45 40 time to beat defenders to the edge for big plays. Last season, Mathews had 5 runs for 20 yards or more, including a 63 yard touchdown against the NFL’s best defense, the Carolina Panthers.
And while Mathews will never be mistaken for LeSean McCoy, he also flashed the ability to make defenders miss, a skill set that was valuable last year given the offensive line’s incompetence (which might come in handy again this season):
In other words, Mathews possesses a rare combination of size, speed and agility, and has the Pro Bowl credentials to justify being a lead running back on a football team.
But there are two criticisms holding him back in the eyes of Eagles fans and the media: his ability to catch the ball and injury history.
It’s a prerequisite for a running back to be able to catch the football in order to excel in Andy Reid’s (and by extension, Doug Pederson’s), West Coast offense. Jamaal Charles caught 75 passes combined over the 2010-2012 seasons, but in Reid’s first season in Kansas City in 2013, Charles caught 70 passes for 693 years and 7 touchdowns. From 2004-08, Brian Westbrook averaged 71 catches for 638.2 yards and 4.8 touchdowns per season.
Many have suggested that Mathews won’t fit this scheme given his struggles catching the football. Indeed, reading that last sentence likely conjured up memories for you of some horrific drops from Mathews last year:
But the concerns over Mathews ability to catch the football are being overstated. Per Prof-Football-Reference.com, Mathews has caught 166 of 212 passes during his career, which equates to a 78.3% catch rate. That actually bests Jamaal Charles career catch rate of 69.8%, (283/405) and — brace yourself — Brian Westbrook’s catch rate of 73.7% (442/599).
Admittedly, Mathews has been targeted much less frequently (212) than Westbrook (599) and Charles (405). But 212 targets is a large enough sample size that his production should not be ignored. Mathews was reliable catching the ball out of the backfield last year, suggesting that he could be even more effective in an expanded roll this season.
Without question, Mathews injury history is concerning. He has played in only 73 of 96 potential games during his career, and an argument can be made that it will only get worse as Mathews gets older. We already saw Mathews miss nine days of training camp because of an injury he suffered before he even started practicing. How can Mathews be counted upon if he cannot take the field?
Not to downplay those concerns, but there is a silver lining to his injury history. Mathews has only played in 19 of 32 games over the last two seasons, carrying the ball 180 times during that span. Most starting running backs eclipse 180 carries in a single season, so this actually can help Mathews’ longevity in the league since he has less wear and tear than your typical 28-year old running back.
And let’s put his injury history into context. Mathews has averaged 12.16 games per season during his career. Westbrook averaged 13.8 games per season when he was the Eagles primary running back (2004-08). And Charles has a career average of 10.6 games per season over his eight year career.
Again, Mathews’ injury history isn’t ideal. But Westbrook and Charles have proven that you can be an effective running back despite missing a few games per season (ditto Arian Foster during his prime).
I don’t expect Ryan Mathews to contend for a rushing title this year. I don’t expect Mathews to morph into Westbrook or Charles in their primes. But I do think it is reasonable to expect Mathews to have a productive season as the Eagles lead back, even if he misses a few games due to a nagging injury.