Column: Holdout is a battle the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon can’t win; just hope he finds peace

Chargers running back Melvin Gordon rushes during the second half against the Denver Broncos in Denver.
Running back Melvin Gordon has virtually no leverage in his contract dispute with the Chargers.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

The declaration was something a running back in a contract dispute would like to hear from his quarterback.

“I know Melvin knows that I’m pulling for him,” Philip Rivers said.

The words of encouragement to Melvin Gordon concealed the wisdom that was dispensed immediately after.


“You want him to feel great and you want him to be at peace with how it all ends, and hopefully it’s right here,” Rivers said.

You want him to feel great.

You want him to be at peace.

Because that’s the most Gordon can realistically expect to gain from his holdout, which is now in its fourth week.

Gordon won’t win. He can’t win.

No one can.

This isn’t about right or wrong. This is about reality, and the reality is that the rules outlined in the collective bargaining agreement won’t allow a player in his position to triumph.

By refusing to participate in training camp, Gordon is making a statement more than he is exercising his leverage, which, to be clear, is practically nonexistent.

The Chargers will politely listen to him. They will nod. They will say they understand. They will continue to profess their love for him. And, ultimately, they will pay him what they want to pay him.

The Los Angeles Chargers ranked last in the NFL in touchback average last season. Kicker Michael Badgley is hoping to change that in 2019.

The hope is that the two sides can reach an agreement without Gordon developing the kind of resentment toward the franchise that could diminish his performance. Structure the deal so that Gordon can look as if he won something or whatnot.

Why Gordon would demand a long-term extension is entirely understandable. He plays a physically demanding position. He will be at the peak of his powers for only so long.

But why the Chargers are balking at his demands also makes sense. As the NFL has become a passing league, the perceived value of running backs has decreased. Also, this: The Chargers don’t have to give in to him.

Gordon is scheduled to earn $5.6 million this season in the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. He can’t skip the season and become a free agent, as Le’Veon Bell did last year. If Gordon refuses to play this year, he will be in the same exact situation next year as he is now.

When his rookie contract expires, the Chargers can retain him for two more seasons by placing a franchise tag on him. His salary would double, but he wouldn’t get the long-term security that he wants.

So he’s stuck.

His agent confirmed to Jeff Miller of The Times that he would demand a trade if he doesn’t get a new contract, but the Chargers almost certainly won’t trade him under such compromised circumstances. The return would be minimal, as the Chargers would be dealing from a position of weakness, especially since the team to which Gordon would be traded would presumably have to sign him to a new contract.

About the only recourse Gordon has would be to appeal to the public. But management has trampled over the players in the public-relations war, so much so that fans are typically inclined to side with the team in situations like this, even when the team has owners as reviled as the Spanos family.

The salary cap is part of the PR machine. The fans of today are mindful of their team’s long-term well-being. They would rather a player be shortchanged than their team enter into a deal that would compromise its future.

In short, Gordon can’t count on the public to pressure the Chargers into giving him the contract he wants.

Artavis Scott, unable to play in an NFL game in first two seasons, is trying to win a wide receiver position on the Chargers.

Gordon is required to report before Week 11 to be credited for playing this season, meaning that figures to be the very latest he joins the team. That he would wait that long seems unlikely, as doing so could have significant financial ramifications. As it is, the Chargers are entitled to fine him $30,000 for every day of training camp missed, as well as a week’s worth of regular-season pay for every preseason game missed.

Which could explain why Chargers coach Anthony Lynn didn’t look or sound particularly concerned when asked about Gordon’s absence.

“It’ll work itself out,” said Lynn, who also mentioned that based on what he knows about Gordon’s work habits, he expects him to be in shape whenever he reports.

As a former running back, Lynn said he understood Gordon’s position. Gordon’s teammates said they did too.

Rivers complimented Gordon for how hard he plays.

“Offensive linemen love seeing a guy fight for every inch, and he’s that way,” Rivers said. “Quarterbacks love it as well. Also, he sells himself out and throws his body in harm’s way to protect, not only catch out of the backfield but to protect. Then, he’s great off the field. He is always smiling, laughing. He is always around the guys. I think the guys appreciate that. We want Melvin back.”

Cornerback Casey Hayward, who said he speaks to Gordon three times a week, said he wanted to see Gordon get what he was asking for.

“How can I tell him to come if he feels like he deserves this?” Hayward said. “I feel like I deserved what I got. I’m pretty sure nobody would say, ‘No, he didn’t.’ For a brother like Melvin, he deserves what he wants to get and what he’s worked hard for.”

At the same time, Hayward also spoke optimistically about Gordon’s return, referring to a workout video the Pro Bowl running back posted on a social media account.

“I think that shows that hopefully he’ll be back sooner than later,” Hayward said.

Common sense shows that, too. The mystery isn’t whether Gordon will return, but, as Rivers intimated, how he will feel when he does.