Taking a look back at the career of the longtime Chiefs running back shows that he is a surefire Hall of Famer…
After 16 total games played with the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars over the past two seasons, Jamaal Charles came home.
On Wednesday, Charles signed for a day with the Kansas City Chiefs in order to retire as a Chief. It was a career with many obstacles along the way, but it was a career marked by greatness.
Charles is, simply put, one of the greatest football players to ever put pads on. Certainly he is near the very top when it comes to the greatest running backs to ever play in the NFL. Let’s walk back through his career to see the facts of what he accomplished.
Charles entered the league in 2008 as a third-round pick. Though he was electric at Texas, NFL evaluators weren’t sure if he was big enough at 6’1″ and 200 pounds to stand up to the rigors of the NFL. The Chiefs seemed to agree with that sentiment early on, choosing to use him as a change-of-pace back in his rookie year. The 2008 Chiefs were an awful team, with Tyler Thigpen at the helm and with an outmatched coaching staff. They ended the year at 2-14, which was the end of Herm Edwards’ coaching tenure in Kansas City. Still, in his rookie year and in such a terrible situation for running the ball, Charles averaged 5.3 yards per rush and 10.1 yards per reception. Even though he was still trying to learn the pro game, he was incredibly dynamic from the start.
2009 saw a changing of the guard, with Larry Johnson being suspended and then cut after seven games, due to inappropriate comments he made on Twitter. This led to the Chiefs giving Jamaal Charles nine starts, and fans started seeing what he could do with a larger workload. Despite the Chiefs still being an overall terrible team during Todd Haley’s first year as head coach, going 4-12, Charles averaged 5.9 yards per carry during that season. He rushed for 1,120 yards and scored 8 touchdowns.
It is incredibly difficult to rush for that kind of average per carry in the NFL. On a good team, it may be a bit easier, as opposing teams sometimes are so busy protecting against the pass that running lanes open up. But like the 2008 Chiefs, the 2009 Chiefs had putrid quarterback play. This was Matt Cassel’s first season with the Chiefs, during which he had a 55% completion rate with 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions – for a 29.1 QBR! It doesn’t get much worse than that, yet Charles was incredible.
Here are some highlights from that season – the picture is grainy because it was 10 years ago (gasp!), but you can see even early in his career the elite vision, the way he gets skinny through the smallest of holes to spurt through, the elusive cuts, the great receiving ability, and the home run speed:
2010 was a year that Chiefs fans had been dreaming about for a while. Not having been to the playoffs since 2006, and coming off 2-14 and 4-12 seasons, the Todd Haley offense started clicking and the Chiefs went 10-6 and made the playoffs. Cassel was more serviceable, posting a 60.1 QBR (his best by far as a Chief), but the play of Jamaal Charles was the reason the Chiefs made the playoffs. He rushed for an absolutely insane 6.4 yards per carry on 230 carries, for a total of 1,467 yards! He added 468 yards receiving, falling just short of 2,000 total yards.
Amazingly, Todd Haley started veteran Thomas Jones at running back in 10 of the 16 regular season games, and Jones carried the ball 245 times, 15 more than Charles. With the very same offensive line in the very same offense, Jones averaged 3.7 yards per carry, for a total of 896 yards. While limiting Charles to 230 carries during the regular season was likely an intelligent move, no statistic shows the otherworldly talent of Charles better than that comparison. Thomas Jones was a decent running back, and Charles nearly doubled his output, with fewer carries!
If Jamaal Charles’ career had continued on the trajectory it was on from 2008 to 2010, he could have become widely viewed as the greatest running back in NFL history. That was as remarkable a start to a career as the league has seen. But in 2011, when he was 25 and in the prime of his career, he suffered his first season-ending injury, tearing his ACL in the second game of the year.
With the same coach and essentially the same roster, the Chiefs struggled for the rest of that season, going 7-9 and leading to Todd Haley’s firing near the end of the season. Charles had started the season on a 6.9 yards per carry pace, but in his absence Jackie Battle led the Chiefs in yards per carry during the rest of that season, at 4.0.
Though recovery from a torn ACL can be a challenge, Charles returned as something very close to his old self from 2012-2014, shredding defenses over those next three seasons.
2012 was another of those transcendent seasons where he performed despite some of the worst coaching and quarterback play ever seen. Romeo Crennel led the Chiefs to a 2-14 record, and Matt Cassel threw 6 touchdowns and 12 interceptions before being benched for Brady Quinn, who threw for 2 touchdowns and 8 interceptions! They each started 8 games and both managed a QBR under 27!
Yet despite the fact that defenses literally only had to game plan for one player on the entire team, that player ran the ball for 1,509 yards at 5.3 yards per carry! One play from that season that is unforgettable is his run against the Saints, where he outraced the defense, even though Roman Harper had a great angle to stop him. He was just too fast, even post-injury.
2013 and 2014 were Charles’ last full seasons with the Chiefs, and they were under head coach Andy Reid, with Alex Smith at quarterback. In 2013 Charles went off, gaining 1,287 yards rushing and 693 yards receiving (1,980 total), with 19 touchdowns! In 2014 he came back down to earth, finishing with a still remarkable 1,324 total yards and 14 touchdowns.
Unfortunately he suffered another knee injury in the fifth game of 2015 and never truly returned to form again, age and injuries catching up with him. But in his Hall of Fame career, Charles averaged 5.4 yards per carry! As we’ve seen, that included a majority of years on terrible rosters, where he had to literally carry his team to whatever victories they could eke out.
Playing one of the most physically bruising positions in sports, Charles managed to play in 15 or 16 games in six seasons, rushing over his career 1,407 times for 7,563 yards! Comparing his career to Gale Sayers, who many view as one of the greatest running backs ever, the comparison is not close. Sayers rushed 991 times for 4,956 yards, at 5.0 yards per carry.
While certainly that was a much different time in league history, and offenses were not as explosive or high volume as they are today, certainly Charles and Sayers have what anyone would say are comparable numbers. Beyond that, if you watch their career highlights back to back, they have eerily similar running styles. Both had vision and anticipation that helped them see what was going to happen, and they both had a rare physical ability to get their body through holes or out of trouble. Both had excellent balance to stay on their feet if they were hit, and once they were free, they were both too fast to catch.
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Jamaal Charles is without a doubt one of the best running backs in NFL history and has more than enough credentials to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Thanks for the memories, Mr. Charles!
Kevin Scott is a fantasy veteran and analyst (and huge Chiefs fan). He can be followed @champofantasy.