SAN DIEGO (AP) — To Ryan Mathews, there's a distinction: he's following LaDainian Tomlinson, not trying to replace the great running back.
After showing his speed and power in the limited context of exhibition games, Mathews gets to unleash it full-time when the San Diego Chargers begin pursuit of their fifth straight AFC West title Monday night at Kansas City.
Mathews idolized Tomlinson to the point that he wore No. 21 while at Fresno State. On draft day, when the Chargers moved up 16 spots to take Mathews with the 12th pick overall, he suddenly found himself following in L.T.'s cleat marks.
"I'm not L.T. I'm not in here to try to be L.T. or I'm not in here to try to replace him," Mathews said. "He's a legend. What he did here is forever going to stand in the record books. For me looking up to him, I'm in a wonderful position. It's a gift just being able to follow his footsteps and what he did, to be in the same position, same locker room, same teammates, where he just dominated.
"He set a lot of good building blocks and stepping stones for me to start my career off. He just did a wonderful thing."
Tomlinson was released by the Chargers after nine mostly brilliant seasons, the victim of age, injuries and, apparently, getting on the wrong side of general manager A.J. Smith. The New York Jets - who shocked the Chargers 17-14 in the playoffs - thought otherwise, signing the former NFL MVP not long after he was tossed out.
So now L.T's job belongs to Mathews.
"It's going to be fun this year. It really is," Mathews said.
Mathews knows there will be comparisons. He's looking at this as the beginning of the Ryan Mathews era.
"That's what I'm trying to do. It's not really coming in here and trying to prove a point. I'm going to do what I can to help the team win," he said. "Just like L.T. did, he came in here trying to help the team win. He helped turn this program around. He made a legacy doing that. That's one thing I hope I can do and accomplish here while I'm with the Chargers, is build a legacy."
The Chargers have become pass-happy behind $93 million man Philip Rivers, a point Tomlinson emphasized after he joined the Jets. San Diego ranked near the bottom in every significant rushing category last year. Tomlinson, the NFL's eighth-leading running back of all-time, was injured early in the 2009 season and finished with 730 yards on 223 carries for an average of 3.3 yards per carry, all career lows.
While Rivers has aired it out - he's had two straight 4,000-yard seasons - coach Norv Turner does preach balance.
"When we played at our best, we had balance," said Turner, who presided over a team that went 13-3 before flopping in the playoffs. "We just want to have balance consistently. But if we get one of those teams, which we're going to get, that sit up there and play eight, nine guys up there, and dare you to pass, I think people know we're willing to throw it."
There could be a different dynamic with San Diego's passing game this year due to the holdouts of Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill, a Pro Bowler in 2006-07. Unhappy about their status as restricted free agents and the Chargers' unwillingness to give them long-term deals, the two might sit out the entire season.
Whatever happens in the passing game, the Chargers have a fresh set of legs in Mathews, who was the nation's leading rusher at 150.7 yards per game last year, including a game in which he shredded Boise State for 234 yards and three long touchdown runs.
Turner is looking forward to game plans in which Mathews gets 22 to 24 carries rather than the limited carries in meaningless exhibition games.
"Ryan gives us explosive plays," Turner said. "He's got great speed and he's going to crank off some 10-, 15-, 20-yard runs. Obviously if you make those kind of plays in the running game, you get different looks defensively. And I think there's the consistency in the running game. I do believe that the offensive line gets geared up when they have a guy back there and think, ‘Hey, if we do a great job, he can turn this play into a big play.' "
Right guard Louis Vasquez agrees.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)