Column: Austin Ekeler does Melvin Gordon imitation, meaning Chargers don’t miss holdout back

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler races past Colts defenders.
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler races past Colts defenders to score on a 55-yard touchdown catch during the third quarter of a 30-24 overtime win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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The touchdown was Melvin Gordon-like.

Austin Ekeler caught a screen pass on the Chargers’ 40-yard line and exploded upfield, where he broke free of Darius Leonard’s violent embrace and bowled over Pierre Desir before marching into the end zone.

Ordinarily, this is what a player holding out over a contract dispute would least want to see, his replacement scoring on the kind of dynamic play for which he was known.

Gordon’s response?

A celebratory message on his social media account reading, “@AustinEkeler eating!!!!


There was more.

Austin Ekeler scores on a seven-yard run in overtime as the Chargers fend off a furious rally by the Colts to open the season with a 30-24 victory.

Sept. 8, 2019

Shortly after the Chargers secured a 30-24 overtime victory over the Indianapolis Colts, Gordon retweeted a picture of them celebrating that was posted by the team’s official Twitter account. He also retweeted a video of Ekeler’s seven-yard touchdown run in the extra period, Ekeler’s third score of the game.

The stream of updates demonstrated why Gordon remains a popular figure in the locker room even after extending his holdout into the regular season.

“That’s why I love our room,” Ekeler said.

Gordon’s public support made the conversation around Ekeler’s breakout game less awkward for the parties involved. None of that changed the truth that emerged from the season-opening victory, however, which was that Gordon was replaceable.

In addition to scoring three touchdowns, Ekeler was responsible for 154 yards from scrimmage, including 96 on six receptions. Ekeler and Justin Jackson combined for 115 yards rushing on 18 carries.

This represented a worst-case scenario for Gordon, in terms of his financial objectives.

Gordon was looking for a contract that would pay him in the neighborhood of $13 million annually, according to Jeff Miller of The Times. The Chargers offered him something in the $10-million range.


With the two sides holding firm, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said last week that extension talks with Gordon would be suspended until after the season. Gordon figures to rejoin the team at some point this season in order to move a year closer to free agency. When he does, Telesco said he will play under the original terms of his rookie contract, which calls for a $5.6 million salary this season.

The likelihood of Gordon prevailing in this fight was minimal under the terms of the NFL’s collective-bargaining agreement, which includes a hard salary cap for teams. Gordon’s undertaking was the equivalent of David battling Goliath without his sling; victory would require Goliath to spear his own foot with his javelin.

Gordon exercised the only leverage he had, which was the possibility that his team couldn’t contend without him.

The game Sunday at Dignity Health Sports Park revealed that wasn’t the case.

Thomas Davis showed his veteran leadership in the Chargers’ win over the Colts, but the defense struggled at junctures throughout the game.

Sept. 8, 2019

At this point, Gordon might as well hold out for a handful of more weeks to minimize the chances of an injury. But the outcome is decided. He will return to the team this season because refusing to do so will place him in the same situation he is in now. He also won’t get the contract that he wants.

The particulars of Ekeler’s game are important components in this. Gordon scored 14 touchdowns last season. Ekeler scored three Sunday. Gordon was a receiving threat. So was Ekeler.

A third-year player who was signed as an undrafted free agent from Western State in Colorado, Ekeler was able to perform the variety of tasks asked of him because of his experience backing up Gordon.


“Shoot, my rookie year, I felt like I was the third-down back,” Ekeler said. “So I’m catching balls. That’s mainly what I was doing. I was going and protecting in the pass game. It’s always been a part of what I’m emphasizing through my game, just be more of a football player, not just a running back.”

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler is hoisted by teammate Dan Feeney after scoring on a 55-yard touchdown catch Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

His first touchdown Sunday was scored on a one-yard pass from Philip Rivers in the first quarter. Ekeler celebrated by strumming an air guitar, a tradition he started in college.

“It’s a great feeling, man,” he said. “That’s why I hit the air guitar every time. I imagine that’s how a rock star feels the whole time he’s playing, playing for his crowd. It’s just great. So much emotional built up inside of you, just all coming out. Every time today, I was just screaming as loud as I could.”

Asked about the extra period, Ekeler blurted out, “I hate overtime! God dang!”

Austin Ekeler is fully healed and other things we learned from the Los Angeles Chargers’ 30-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Sept. 9, 2019

He spoke with pride of how Gordon has occasionally checked in on him. Told his performance might have cost Gordon a significant amount of money, Ekeler giggled.

“I can’t say that,” Ekeler said. “I’m just going to say, ‘I can control what I can control,’ you know?”


Clearly, he was still free of the cynicism that players develop after realizing the economic realities of the NFL. On this day, he was a young man living out a lifelong dream. More days like this, however, and he could find himself in a position similar to Gordon’s.