COSTA MESA, Calif. — Entering the third week of his holdout, teammates still remember running back Melvin Gordon‘s name.
“That’s my guy,” said Los Angeles Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, when asked about Gordon’s situation during the opening week of training camp. “I’m missing him a little bit, but he’s going to get it right.”
After finishing 12-4 last year and reaching the AFC divisional playoff round for the first time since 2013, the Chargers believe they can make a Super Bowl run. They have a confident head coach in Anthony Lynn and a 37-year-old, perennial Pro Bowl quarterback in Philip Rivers leading them, surrounded by playmakers on offense and one of the most talented defenses in the league.
While the Chargers won four games without Gordon last season, they probably need the workhorse running back if they want to reach the title game for the first time since the 1994 season.
“I’m not naïve: I know we’re better with Melvin Gordon,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said before the start of training camp. “But we’ve got a strong group of guys that are here, and it’s their time to work and get ready to go.”
Talks are ongoing between Gordon’s representatives and Chargers brass, but the two sides remain far apart and negotiations threaten to stretch into the regular season.
“He’s prepared to sit as long as he has to,” Gordon’s agent, Fletcher Smith, told SiriusXM radio in July.
With that in mind, here are our answers to some of the major questions surrounding Gordon’s holdout.
Question: What are the sticking points between the Chargers and Gordon?
Answer: Gordon is set to make $5.605 million in 2019 on the fifth-year team option of his rookie deal.
Gordon told the Chargers through his representation if he does not receive a new deal, he’ll sit out and demand a trade. He desires a contract extension comparable to the top running backs in the league: Todd Gurley, David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell, who earn an average of $13 million to $14 million annually.
The Chargers have offered Gordon a contract that doubles his salary at roughly $10 million annually — so far that hasn’t been enough to get Gordon into camp.
Gordon has a case for wanting compensation among the top running backs in the NFL.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Gordon ranks in the top five in rushing yards (2,987), scrimmage yards (4,372) and total touchdowns (38) in the past three seasons. He’s the only player in the NFL with at least 12 scrimmage touchdowns in each of the past three seasons, and was one of three running backs with five yards per rush and 50 receptions last season (Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley).
Still, the Chargers also cannot ignore his injury history. Gordon has missed nine games since entering the league in 2015 and finished last season wearing braces on both knees.
Q: What’s the next deadline for Gordon and how will it affect his contract status?
A: Per the league’s collective bargaining agreement, the Chargers can fine Gordon up to $30,000 a day for his absence. Also, as noted here, the Chargers can fine Gordon a regular-season game check (about $330,000) for every preseason game he misses, per the CBA.
Those fines can add up to a significant amount of money. Although in cases like this one, the fines have been waived by the team once a player signs a new deal.
As my ESPN colleague Dan Graziano writes, the NFL’s constitution and bylaws state that players on the reserve/did not report list are “prohibited from being reinstated in the last 30 days of the regular season.”
If Gordon wants to play this year, he would have to report no later than Nov. 29 (31 days before the end of the regular season).
But a more realistic deadline for Gordon is Week 1 of the regular season, when he can begin collecting a game check for this year.
Q: The Chargers were 4-0 without Gordon in 2018. Do they even need him to make the playoffs and compete for the Super Bowl?
A: Critics of Gordon’s holdout rightly highlight the fact the Chargers were undefeated without Gordon last season.
And they have a point. Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson are solid NFL players who provide good production and depth at running back, allowing the Bolts to create enough balance on offense to win games.
And the Chargers were much more effective with Gordon in the lineup. According to ESPN Stats & Information, with Gordon the Chargers averaged 118 rushing yards a game last season. Without Gordon, the Chargers averaged 84 rushing yards.
The real question is can the Chargers win a Super Bowl without Gordon?
The last six players to lead the league in rushing yards played on teams that won a division title, but none of those teams advanced past the divisional round of the postseason that season.
Bottom line is having a workhorse running back helps you make the playoffs but does not guarantee a Super Bowl berth.
Q: What could the Chargers get in trade for Gordon?
A: A trade remains unlikely because the team picking up Gordon would not only have to give up significant draft capital but also sign Gordon to a high-dollar deal.
Telesco has said the Chargers are not willing to trade Gordon, but if they did, they probably would get a mid-round pick in return.
So while unlikely, if the two sides ultimately deem the situation untenable, it’s possible the Chargers could move Gordon.
Teams that could make sense include the Indianapolis Colts: They have the most salary cap space in the NFL and two coaches Gordon played for when the Chargers were in San Diego in head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni.
Louis Riddick says contract holdouts are all about timing and leverage and Melvin Gordon has neither.
Q: Should the Chargers pay Gordon, who has completed one 16-game season?
A: Telesco’s philosophy in team building since taking over as the top personnel man in 2013 has been to draft, develop and re-sign foundational players. Re-signing Rivers, Allen, Melvin Ingram, Denzel Perryman and Corey Liuget are recent examples of executing that philosophy.
Gordon is a hard worker who is well-liked by his teammates, coaches and the front office. Gordon wants to stay and the Chargers want to keep him as evidenced by Telesco offering him a new deal, even though the team could force him to play for $5.6 million in 2019 and use the franchise tag to control his rights the following two seasons.
Gordon’s situation is different than Bell’s because Gordon’s under contract, so it seems unlikely he would be willing to miss game checks and sit out regular-season games. There’s room for the two sides to reach a compromise that brings Gordon into camp.
“I love Melvin Gordon,” Telesco said. “He’s an excellent player. He’s tough. He has a great work ethic and represents our organization extremely well. But he’s not here.
“I understand his thoughts and opinions of what he’s going through. I always look at the player’s side, so I can see it. It doesn’t mean I agree with it, but I can kind of see what his thought process is.”