Jamaal Charles wasn’t built like the typical star running back, with his thin frame, weighing less than 200 pounds. But make no mistake, he was a star running back who should get serious consideration for Canton some day.
Yesterday, the Kansas City Chiefs put Charles on injured reserve again (after just 12 carries this year) derailing his attempt to come back from knee surgery. He has played in only eight games since the end of the 2014 season, and turns 30 in December. After two serious knee injuries in the NFL, and needing another surgery after the halt to his comeback this season, it’s likely we will never see Jamaal Charles at his best again.
Charles was fast if he got in the open field, but plenty of backs have speed. What he had was that subtle ability to do partial cuts and quick shifts, as if gliding on an invisible line that only he could see, slicing through opposing defenders. What he had were those feet–they looked like they were moving, stopping, starting, stutter-stepping and exploding twice as fast as the players around him.
Charles got his opportunity thanks to an emerging social media platform called Twitter. In 2009, despite Larry Johnson having numerous legal run-ins and despite him being a shell of himself as a player, the Chiefs kept giving him the ball. He was averaging 2.9 yards a carry in a lost 1-6 season, when he took to Twitter to criticize head coach Todd Haley, and send a gay slur in the direction of a fan who responded to him on the platform. Johnson was suspended (and ultimately released without ever playing another down), and the Chiefs — not trusting Jamaal Charles completely — went with a Charles/Kolby Smith platoon.
That changed two weeks later. Charles’ first rushing touchdown (he caught one from the immortal Tyler Thigpen as a rookie) came on a 4th down against Oakland. On fourth downs, defenses typically play up and risk a big play. But just looking at the play-by-play doesn’t reveal that Charles made something happen when many backs would have been stuffed for a loss on the same attempt.
One week later, he started the game against Pittsburgh with a kickoff return touchdown. It was another seemingly effortless jaunt where he just moved and cut through several defenders before exploding past them. The LJ era was officially over; it was a new day.
He ended up having over 1,000 yards in his last nine games of 2009, including a monster 259-yard game at Denver.
The Chiefs added another veteran, Thomas Jones, that offseason, and he split time with Charles. But it took all of a few minutes for Charles to explode again to start 2010.
By season’s end, Jamaal Charles had more than 1,900 yards from scrimmage, even though he didn’t even lead his own team in rush attempts. He was in a near flat-footed tie with Jim Brown in 1963 for the highest yards per carry (6.48 to 6.50 for Brown) for any back with at least 160 carries in a season.
He was magical, fluid, and capable of breaking any play. But that came crashing down in Detroit at the start of the 2011 season, when he tore his ACL.
Would he be able to come back? Given how much those knees endured on every cut, subtle move, and jab, it was no certainty. In 2012, he rushed for over 1,500 yards in his comeback season. In 2013, he blew past that. His defining game, among many, came in Oakland, where he challenged the league record for touchdowns in a game, and set a running back record with four receiving touchdowns.
Jamaal Charles would end the 2013 season with more than 1,900 yards from scrimmage for the second time in his career, and 19 total touchdowns scored.
Charles was never seen as the prototype. He broke the mold. But here is where he stands in terms of running back “fantasy points” using yards and touchdowns, and looking at points over baseline (24th RB in the league). This VBD (value-based drafting) baseline separates compilers who were barely above most other starters, and those who were exceptional.
Even with two missed seasons in that period (2011 and 2015), and another when he didn’t become the starter until halfway through (2009), Charles comes in as the 3rd highest back of the last seven years in the NFL.
Even though he has the highest career yards per carry (5.5) for any running back since Marion Motley (and Motley accumulated the majority of his carries in the AAFC, not the NFL), Charles also was reliable.
From 2009 to 2015, while Charles was averaging 5.5 yards a rush, every other running back not named Charles for the Chiefs averaged 3.69 yards a carry. In contrast, from 1946 to 1952, when Marion Motley established his mark at 5.7, all other Cleveland backs averaged 4.45 yards a carry. When Jim Brown averaged 5.22 yards per carry from 1957 to 1965, while bludgeoning opponents, other Browns running backs averaged 4.52 yards per carry running behind loaded offensive lines.
Charles wasn’t doing it behind a dominant run line, yet he was not boom or bust, with his yards per carry inflated by a couple of long runs each year.
In fact, here’s a summary of every running back with at least 1,000 carries since the start of 2009, sorted by how frequently they gained at least 4 yards on a carry. [all data from the invaluable Game Play Finder at pro-football-reference.com.]
Charles did have the best rate of runs of 10-plus yards. But he wasn’t that much in front of Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy. But he pulls away even more when we look at the ability to get 4 yards consistently, and is the only back to do it more than half the time.
Jamaal Charles had many highlights. But my memories include all the plays where he made someone miss who got into the backfield, and would have blown up the play for a loss against most mortal backs. Charles would routinely turn those into 5-yard gains after side-stepping a defender, and occasionally, turn it into a play that would lead SportsCenter.