A running back has finished with at least 49 catches each season since Rivers became the team’s starter in 2006
But that changed in 2014. Branden Oliver led running backs with 36 catches for 271 yards.
The reason for that decline, of course, is the early season injury to third-down back Danny Woodhead, who suffered a broken ankle against Buffalo in Week 3.
In his first season with the Chargers, Woodhead totaled 1,034 yards from scrimmage, including 76 catches for 605 yards and six touchdowns. Woodhead finished tied for third among running backs with 86 targets. And he topped all running backs with 21 red-zone targets.
Rivers developed good chemistry early on with Woodhead, who joined the team as a free agent in 2013. And Chargers general manager Tom Telesco recognized that rapport, showing his commitment to Woodhead by signing him to a three-year, $7.25 million contract extension during training camp last year.
Woodhead has been one of the pleasant surprises for the Chargers so far during offseason work. He has flashed the quickness and elusiveness that makes him one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league in his return from a serious ankle injury.
“It would be hard to go out there and try and execute if you’re not sure about what you can do,” Woodhead said. “I want to be the same person, and I think I am. That’s the main thing -- getting comfortable and going out and doing it, and then showing yourself that you can do it again.”
Chargers coach Mike McCoy said he’s not surprised Woodhead is back to playing the way he was before the setback.
“No, not at all,” McCoy said. “Not with the way he works and his approach to the game. He’s one of the guys always in here early, working and doing extra. When he was away from us for a little bit he’d send little video clips on his updates, things like that. So it doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
Woodhead turned 30 in January – the magic number for a running back when their skills usually begin to erode. But Woodhead isn’t your usual, downhill runner. He has averaged just 55 carries a season over his seven-year NFL career.
“I don’t feel that old,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m on my last legs. I feel really good. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve had less touches than a lot of 30-year-old running backs, but I feel really good. I don’t feel like I’m slowing down.”
Woodhead also feels good about the potential of San Diego’s offense this season. While acknowledging it’s only June – three months away from San Diego’s season opener against Detroit in September – Woodhead believes the Chargers can be explosive on offense.
“Hopefully it’s a little bit better than it was at this point last year, but we’ll see,” he said. “It’s a day-to-day process. We want to be great, and we think we’ve got a lot of good guys and a lot of good pieces. So we’re excited about it.”