Ryan Mathews is at the center of a conversation no one is having. He is the owner of a role no one has given him.
Not until he earns it.
On Sunday, the Chargers running back put a stamp on his rookie season with a career-high 120 yards and three touchdowns in a 33-28 win over the Broncos. He believes the perfomance was less about a strong finish than a strong beginning — the start of something that, for now, exists only in his imagination.
Mathews can envision a team role he will eventually reach. He can hear what commentators and fans will someday write and say of him.
“I want to be a leader,” Mathews said. “I want to one of these days be known as a leader like (LaDainian Tomlinson) was. LT is a leader. Philip Rivers is known as a leader. And Gates. I want to be up there with them. Just to have my name mentioned in the same sentence, like 'Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Ryan Mathews — they were great players.'”
This is not a desire.
Desire is weak. It sporadically pops up in the mind and is fully comfortable in that space. It does not demand the work needed to exist outside the brain. With time, unkept, it fizzles away.
This is a dream, and how to achieve it is the first broken record of Mathews' NFL career.
He talks, and talks, and talks, about the work needed to become that leader, the work needed to join that conversation.
This off-season, these several months, Mathews can become closer.
“I want to be great one day, and it's going to take hard work,” Mathews said. “I can't be satisfied with where I am at now. I've got to keep improving. I'm going to try to get a little bigger, faster, stronger every year. ...You see how hard Rivers works at everything. You see how hard Gates has been working. You see all these guys who work. They're role models.”
Specifically, Mathews says he wants to “improve on everything.”
He had five fumbles on 182 touches. Those have to be minimized, and coach Norv Turner said the key is not carrying the ball away from the body.
Mathews wants to improve his patience on runs and make strides in the mental aspect of plays and schemes, which are far more complicated than what he was accustomed to at Fresno State.
“Now it's a different pace,” Mathews said. “The mental game is tougher than the physical game.”
With work, the mental game can be won, and his award will be watching what lives only in his mind materialize outside it.
He will become a leader in the locker room. He will be in that conversation.
“Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Ryan Mathews,” they'll say. “They were great players.”