Chargers have to manage RB Melvin Gordon's workload

SAN DIEGO -- According to ESPN Stats & Information, Melvin Gordon has 158 touches in seven games for the San Diego Chargers this season. He totaled 217 touches all of last season.

With 461 yards on 138 carries, Gordon is on pace to carry the ball 315 times this season, which would put him in the top-10 in team history for the Chargers.

Of course, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, carried the ball at least 315 times in six of his first seven seasons with San Diego, including a franchise-high 372 times in 2002.

With Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver done for the year, Gordon has embraced the role of workhorse back for the Chargers. He’s in great shape, and at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Gordon is built to handle the toll of being an every-down runner in the NFL.

However, Gordon had microfracture knee surgery in January, and at some point, the Chargers have to take a long-term view of Gordon’s workload during a 16-game season.

Backup running back Kenneth Farrow has just 31 yards on eight carries.

“We need to get Kenny in there a little bit more,” Chargers running backs coach Ollie Wilson said. “He’s not the flashy guy. It won’t look pretty but you’ll end up three or four yards down the field.

“The problem with that is it’s always hard in the game for two reasons. One, the back is going good and you don’t want to pull him out. Or, the back not’s going well and you just say, ‘Hey, let’s keep going and it’s going to come that way.’

“But it’s up to me to do that. I’ve had conversations with Mike about it and I’ve got to be able to do that knowing that situation. We’ve got to do that for no other reason than down the road when you look at his carries, you say ‘Hey maybe that’s going to be too much.’”

There’s no question that Gordon is more comfortable and performing better in his second season. After failing to get into the end zone his rookie year, Gordon has shown a nose for the goal line by leading the NFL in touchdowns with 10.

He’s been particularly impressive near the goal line, finishing seven of nine on converting touchdowns within 3 yards of the end zone. Gordon was 0-for-1 on those plays last season.

And Gordon has shown toughness as a runner. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Gordon has 241 yards after contact, No. 6 in the NFL.

However, Gordon’s still averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. For comparison’s sake, NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott is averaging 5.1 yards per carry. No. 2 on the list is David Johnson, who’s averaging 4.7 yards per rush.

Gordon has just three runs of 20-plus yards this year. With more explosive runs, Gordon’s yards per carry will increase.

“That’s what the NFL is,” Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. “If you look at a guy that has 120 yards rushing, I guarantee you he’s got a long run in there.

“I’ve been on teams where we’ve led the league in rushing or been in the top five in rushing, and there were games where we didn’t have much going, and you hit a big run and all of a sudden you’ve had a successful day running the football.”

Whisenhunt went on to say where San Diego has to be efficient is converting first downs on third-and-short situations. Gordon is four of seven on converting first downs on third-and-1.

With the return of Whisenhunt to Chargers Park this season, Gordon’s still getting a feel for the new runs he’s being asked to do. Along with that, the Chargers have not had a consistent starting front five on the offensive line.

San Diego’s projected starters up front have started together four of San Diego’s seven games this season.

“Melvin’s a very physical runner the way he’s playing right now,” Chargers head coach Mike McCoy said. “We’ve just got to do a better job up front of getting him to the second level cleaner, because he’ll wear teams out. They’re going to get sick of hitting this big back coming through and thumping them.”

Wilson expects those big runs to come the more reps Gordon receives.

“I learned this from Eric Dickerson when I had him the last year I was in Atlanta -- the last run informs your next run,” Wilson said. “The funny thing about young tailbacks is from game to game, how they see things varies. With Mel, when we get a couple good runs early in the game where he’s felt like that’s the thing, then he’s on for that time.

“When we get something where it’s a little muffled and it’s not clean, then we’ve got to really work hard with seeing things and looking at things at the sidelines so he can get a feel for it. But overall, I think he’s done a really good job.”