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Chargers RB Melvin Gordon ran all over the Titans, and that's all that matters now

Melvin Gordon finally looked like the historically electrifying player he was in college.

Tennessee Titans v San Diego Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Here’s the lede:

Words rarely do highlights justice. That run on third-and-7 all but sealed the Chargers’ win over the Titans on Sunday. That run may be the best by any running back this season. If that run had been shown to Chargers fans on draft day before their team traded up to take Melvin Gordon No. 15 overall, the consensus would have been hell yes you take that big fast guy who shed three defenders off his back like he was slipping out of a robe.

Gordon had 261 total yards of offense — 196 rushing, 65 yards receiving — in what will be regarded as the game that began his career in earnest if he goes on to become the star his pedigree suggests he ought to be. He was taken as the second running back in the 2015 NFL draft because he was historically good at Wisconsin. Only Barry Sanders rushed for more yards than Gordon did as a junior. Gordon set the single-game rushing record in essentially three quarters of work.

He was bonkers, at Wisconsin and in that one game against the Titans. Those two performances, taken separately, make sense next to each other.

Here’s the conflict:

Those are all headlines from SB Nation’s Chargers blog Bolts From The Blue from the past few months. They are all accurate. The first concern when the Chargers drafted Gordon was whether they even needed a running back given the state of their offensive line and the diminishing value of the position. Then Gordon couldn’t overcome the shortcomings of his line, rushing for 3.5 yards per carry, and zero touchdowns as a rookie. Even his mom wouldn’t wear his jersey.

Then what seemed like a death knell: Reports surfaced that Gordon had undergone microfracture surgery on his knee, a procedure that many athletes across all sports struggle to return from.

Gordon looked so clearly like a bust in the offseason: A highly drafted luxury player who couldn’t elevate above his circumstances as a rookie, and who would now be dogged by injuries. That impression of Gordon was punctuated by the fact that Todd Gurley, the only back drafted ahead of him, was elevating himself within a bad Rams offense, averaging 4.8 yards per carry on his way to being named Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Chargers’ offensive line may have ranked 31st in adjusted line yards, according to Football Outsiders, but the Rams weren’t much better at 24th.

The worst sign was that even I believed he was a bust.

I love Melvin Gordon because I went to Wisconsin, and everybody who went to Wisconsin loves Melvin Gordon. Watching him run made you feel slap-drunk and happy in exactly the way Wisconsin fans try to drink themselves several times a week. He and his era were Wisconsin Football at its most pornographic. Gordon wasn’t and isn’t a fancy runner. He would just go, man, and because he was stronger and faster than any running back Wisconsin has ever had, he put up indulgent numbers that scratched heads like no player I’ve ever seen. He made it look easy and fun, and never mean. He was too good to have to run mean.

Before the draft, I knew the NFL would ruin him. Running backs don’t have a place in the NFL like they do in college. Mileage starts to matter. Pure specimen traits matter less. Passing games rule, and running the ball well is more a function of an offensive coordinator who is adept at rock-paper-scissors. Then there is the legacy of Wisconsin running backs in the league — Ron Dayne, Michael Bennett, Brian Calhoun, and Montee Ball all flamed out for whatever their reasons.

The NFL made Gordon a two-dimensional object. Thousands of words have been written about his career at Wisconsin. “Bust” was all that needed to be written about his time in the NFL before this season. The story is much more complicated now that Gordon is playing better than prevailing wisdom. It’s tempting to write the conclusion now, after a performance that felt like an annunciation.

It warmed my heart in a shitty week to see Chargers fans begin to feel the same way I did (still do) about Gordon. But I won’t slap a conclusion on this. I could. I won’t because what people say or feel in a moment, with what seems like conviction, is as flimsy as the things you love. Gordon won’t be what I think he should be. He may never even be as good as he was against the Titans ever again. It’s safer to appreciate the value of things when you have them than to get caught up on what will be.

Stories aren’t complicated. It’s easy to see the skeleton if you look. Stories are made up of moments contrived in a way to say more than their components. Stories are rough arcs and an ending spackled over. The moments are pure. And hoo boy did Melvin Gordon go.