The Chargers’ season is playing right into Melvin Gordon’s hands

Los Angeles Chargers

If Melvin Gordon wanted any ability to point to his overall value to the team, the Chargers frustrating start playing right into his hands.

At the time, it was hard to find anyone in Melvin Gordon’s corner.

When the Los Angeles Chargers running back made the decision to allow his preseason holdout for a new long-term contract to bleed into the regular season, it looked to everyone in NFL circles like a fool’s errand—a misguided attempt for more money by a player blinded by his own press. Gordon had zero leverage. The Chargers had no reason to cave. Even the mountain of evidence of other cases on other teams worked against him.

These days, Gordon has to be very happy, at least in selfish terms, given the way the regular season has played out thus far.

The Chargers are only three games into the regular season, but with a record of 1-2, they’re already in a two-game hole in the AFC West. That’s a deficit they never once faced last season. A popular preseason pick to upend the Kansas City Chiefs in the West, the Chargers have instead stumbled a bit out of the gates (Antonio joke not intended) due to injury and roster holes that were worse than anticipated.

In fact, if not for Adam Vinatieri’s sudden inability to convert any and all field goals or even an extra point early in this season, the Chargers could easily be winless after facing the Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions, and Houston Texans. Winless. Who would have thought?

HOLDING OUT?

At the time, you had to question Gordon’s representation.

Gordon had come on strong in the last year for the Chargers as a go-to back and a major offensive threat. He’d finally made good on his first-round billing, and anyone on the Chargers would be quick to admit they’d love to have him around—on their terms.

Of course, “their terms” simply refer to the contractual terms to which Gordon is currently bound. It’s the same rookie wage scale that allows NFL owners to use up the prime portion of a player’s career—especially at running back—for pennies on the dollar. Getting to that second payday in free agency is the major goal of any player in the NFL. It allows for generational wealth—literally life-changing money—and a star like Gordon has a good chance of getting there.

But Gordon has felt all along that the system is not only unfair but that the Chargers should skirt around it by giving him an early contract extension. It’s certainly not without precedent and many positions are keen to receive it without even having to ask (e.g. quarterbacks). Unfortunately for Gordon, he plays the one position that’s most averse to any long-term commitments, especially ones encumbered with such a major price tag.

No position in the NFL is easier to replace than running. Team after team has proven how relatively simple it is to maintain a “next man up” philosophy at the position and see similar levels of production. In the case of elite backs such as Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey or Saquon Barkley, there will be an obvious drop in impact, but for the most part, most teams can get by even after their current star departs by bringing in the next player.

REPLACING GORDON

Given Gordon’s holdout, the belief early on was that the combination of Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson would be just fine. In the beginning, it even looked like that would be the case.

In the Chargers’ season-opening overtime win over the Colts, the Bolts rushed for 125 yards on 21 carries and the duo of Ekeler and Jackson averaged a healthy 6.4 yards/carry. Ekeler also added six catches for 96 yards and scored 3 total touchdowns. Gordon Who? was the common refrain asked around L.A. for a week.

In Week 2, the Chargers lost a low-scoring game to the Detroit Lions by a final of 13-10. Ekeler and Jackson combined for a solid 5.2 yards/carry and Ekeler once again had a nice total of 133 yards from scrimmage, but there was an obvious spark missing from what’s typically known as a high-powered offense.

On Sunday, the Chargers dropped an important AFC game to the Houston Texans, 27-20. Ekeler and Jackson combined for their lowest totals yet, with only 62 yards combined rushing with a 4.4 yards/carry average.

In each and every game, the Chargers have held the upper hand at halftime or later:

  • Week 1: The Chargers were up 17-6 at halftime and 24-16 heading into the 4th.
  • Week 2: The Chargers were up 10-6 after 3 quarters.
  • Week 3: The Chargers were up 17-7 at halftime.

In each instance, the game was in control of the Chargers who lacked the personnel to be able to put the game away. The defense has allowed each opponent to creep back into it, while the offense hasn’t been able to maintain momentum and finish the job. In most cases, the Chargers aren’t even giving the ball to Ekeler and Jackson down the stretch like they would with Gordon. The Bolts are aware of what they can and cannot ask, apparently.

A REUNION MAKES SENSE

A return for Melvin Gordon would solve much of these late game woes.

The two-time Pro Bowler has put up 38 touchdowns in his last 39 starts in the last three years, and he’s averaged 107 yards from scrimmage per game in that time. He’s saved some of his biggest games against the team’s toughest foes, including brilliant performances against the Chiefs last year.

However, Gordon also needs to realize that the Chargers have other reasons for their current lackluster performances. Russell Okung remains out for the first several weeks of the season, and the offensive front has been horrible. Dan Feeney has been particularly horrible through the team’s first three games. This doesn’t even touch a defense playing without Adrian Phillips, Derwin James, Michael Davis, Hunter Henry and more.

Gordon needs to be careful and not allow his head to get bigger. After all, the Chargers will get some of their injured back again soon enough. The schedule also gets considerably lighter over the next few weeks. The Miami Dolphins are up next—perfect timing—and the Bolts’ next three opponents are a combined 0-9. If the Chargers can right the ship and gain some momentum, any perceived need will fade fast for Gordon.

But there is a window right now—a very real and very painful one—for the Chargers to admit that they could use a helping hand. If Gordon is willing to approach the table with some flexibility, he might find himself the recipient of some of that long-term security he desired with the desired payday attached.

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