Jamaal Charles must be used wisely
PORT ARTHUR, Texas -- Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles was enjoying the first day of his annual football camp last month when an old friend ambled by to say hello. After some laughter and reminiscing, the gentleman asked Charles a pointed question: "Are they going to get anybody up there in Kansas City to block for you?" It was an inquiry Charles wisely didn't want to answer, given the stunned expression on his face.
But it also was a valid point worth making about this upcoming season, when Charles once again will be asked to do plenty of heavy lifting for his employer.
Few teams in the NFL relied more on one player in 2013. He ran for 1,287 yards, added a team-high 70 receptions for another 693 yards, and scored 19 total touchdowns. When Kansas City opened the season 9-0, it was largely because of a dominant defense and an offense that rested heavily on the shoulders of a running back once deemed too small to thrive in this league.
Now it's probable that Charles will have to do even more to give the Chiefs a chance at returning to the playoffs. If one thing can be said about the Chiefs' offense this offseason, it is that it took a noticeable step backward on paper. Coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey didn't land a suitable wide receiver to ease the pressure on top target Dwayne Bowe. The offensive line lost three veterans -- including Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert -- while the tight end position is relying heavily on the emergence of second-year man Travis Kelce, who spent his rookie season sidelined with a torn ACL. At a time when observers constantly lament the declining value of running backs, the Chiefs are likely to prove how vital a great one can be.
Charles has long been one of the most underrated stars in football, a player who would be far more celebrated if he toiled in a larger media market. He has rushed for at least 1,100 yards in four of the past five seasons -- he suffered a torn ACL in 2011 that forced him to miss most of that season. Charles also quickly became Reid's favorite weapon, and that confidence could prove to be a blessing and a curse.
It's not that the Chiefs shouldn't use Charles in the best way possible. It's that they need to use him as wisely as possible, which means adding more talent around him. It's been impressive to watch a 5-foot-11, 199-pound back dominate the way Charles has the past few years. But it also seems that the Chiefs need him to perform superhuman feats to make a limited offense dangerous.
While quarterback Alex Smith played well last year in his first season in Kansas City, he will be relying on a receiving corps that had only one player catch more than 57 passes in 2013. The offensive line is an even bigger concern. The team is replacing two starters, there is no proven answer at right guard yet, and new left tackle Eric Fisher -- last year's No. 1 overall draft pick -- still faces a steep learning curve after struggling at right tackle. This easily will be the weakest offensive line Charles has started a season behind.
The 27-year-old Charles may not be concerned about his supporting cast -- he still has the electric speed that has helped him average 5.6 yards per carry for his career -- but Reid and Dorsey act as if they're sitting on the second coming of Earl Campbell. Charles is slight enough that one wonders how long he can endure the pounding that comes with having mediocre talent around him (especially in a league where smaller backs such as Ray Rice, Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew have quickly declined). After all, Charles accounted for nearly 37 percent of Kansas City's total yards last season. That's more than Adrian Peterson produced in Minnesota (26 percent) and LeSean McCoy generated for Philadelphia's fast-paced system (32 percent).
Now think about what the Vikings and Eagles have done to help Peterson and McCoy. The Vikings have struggled with their quarterbacks, but they've put strong offensive lines in front of Peterson -- who is about 20 pounds heavier than Charles -- throughout his career. McCoy was a star when Reid coached in Philadelphia, and he's become even bigger with the arrival of coach Chip Kelly. The more the Eagles spread the field and maintain a blistering pace, the more sizable running lanes seem to open for McCoy to dance through every week.
Charles, on the other hand, will have to earn his yards the old-fashioned way, by doing the kind of banging and grinding that wasn't supposed to be his strong suit when he entered the league as a third-round pick in the 2008 draft. Back then, Charles was deemed a change-of-pace back, a weapon who would counter the thunder of former Pro Bowler Larry Johnson. Now he's exactly the kind of threat that Reid loves to inflict on opponents: versatile, explosive and capable of hitting a home run from anywhere on the field.
Those same skills may partly explain why the Chiefs feel so comfortable with what their offense can accomplish this fall. They can point to their 26.9 points-per-game scoring average from last season as proof of their effectiveness, and Reid still remains one of the best offensive minds in football. That said, the Chiefs also inflated that scoring average by posting 162 points in four games against subpar defenses (Washington, Oakland and San Diego twice). This season, Kansas City will have a more difficult time scoring with a schedule that includes Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona, Pittsburgh and New England.
All those teams know the same thing everyone else does about the Chiefs: The best way to stop them is by controlling Charles. That's been a difficult task for most opponents, because Charles ranks among the best in the game. However, there's also a point when a team must question if it's asking too much of a great player. Given how the Chiefs look as they begin training camp this week, that's a question that already is being answered in Kansas City.