Jamaal Charles Is KC's Swiss Army Knife
By Eric Paolini
Jamaal Charles has been the best offensive player for the Kansas City Chiefs this season. He’s certainly been the most trustworthy. The quarterback position is so important, it tends to dominate most conversations. It certainly does when talking about the Chiefs’ offense. It's hard to talk about the offense and not at least mention Alex Smith and the passing game. And that's totally valid. The passing game is a very important aspect of a team's offense. The concern over the passing game as the season progresses has overshadowed the success of Charles and the running game.
As a team, the Chiefs are 11th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (122). They are also 11th in rushing attempts per game (29). Those two stats make sense. Thanks to a wonderful defense, the Chiefs often play with a lead, which lets Kansas City run the ball more. It's very possible that part of the reason the Chiefs have so many rushing attempts is because they have so often been in the lead just looking to hang on. However, this team is effective running the ball. In what is becoming a pattern, Kansas City is tied for 11th in the league in average yards per rush (4.2).
It's a relationship that goes back and forth. The Chiefs run the ball because they are good at it and they want to protect the lead they almost always have. Because the Chiefs almost always have the lead, they are put in positions where they can run the ball a lot. And when they run the ball, their good personnel makes those runs effective.
That good personnel starts with Charles. Without him, this offense would be very different -- not only because his replacement is a rookie who doesn't get much work, but Charles is a perfect back for this offense. He is an effective runner, but also effective in the passing game.
Let's start with his impact in the running game this season. Only LeSean McCoy has more carries this season (156-153). Charles has averaged 19.1 rushing attempts per game this season, a career high. Charles has averaged only 12.8 carries per game for his career. Note that this includes his rookie season when he wasn't a starter and his 2011 season, when he was knocked out for the year after getting hurt in Week 2. The jump in carries per game isn’t that drastic. He is averaging a little more than an extra carry per game than last year.
As a whole, Charles’ rushing numbers are down, in terms of yards per attempt. His 4.2 average is still good, but not as high as his career average (5.5). Last year Charles picked up 5.3 yards a carry. But that doesn't make Charles an ineffective runner at all. Once again, only LeSean McCoy is in front of Charles in total rushing yards. The Philadelphia Eagle has 98 more rushing yards than Charles.
Any of those aforementioned stats are fairly expected. Charles has made two Pro Bowls and been both a first- and second-team member of the AP All-Pro team. He's good and everybody knew that going into the season.
His greatest value to the Chiefs this season has been is role and performance in the passing game. Charles is only five catches away from breaking his career high in receptions for a season. His number of targets has also been much higher than ever before. Charles is only three targets away from breaking that personal high as well.
Charles is also the NFL’s most targeted running back and it isn't close. Charles has just as many targets as Mike Wallace and has more than Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, and Julio Jones. On his 64 targets, Charles has caught 41 passes, a number better than Jordy Nelson, Tony Gonzalez, and Larry Fitzgerald. (Fun running back receiving fact: Danny Woodhead has the second-most receptions as a running back with 40. He has only 45 targets. That's a crazy-high catch percentage.) Charles’ receiving yards aren't as impressive. They aren't in the top 20 like his target and reception numbers. But they are still the highest when compared to running backs. No surprise that running backs dominate yards after catch, but Charles tops that list as well. He has the most per running back and is only nine yards behind Demaryius Thomas for most in the league.
While running backs such as Woodhead and Darren Sproles would also succeed in Kansas City, their success would mostly be in the passing game. Sproles has more receptions than carries (36 to 30), and Woodhead has only six more carries than receptions (46 to 40). What those two players do in their teams’ passing games is very important and impressive. But both teams look to other options to fill their needs when it's time to run the ball.
Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson and Alfred Morris are all running backs who have put up similar numbers to Charles. However, each one is not as big of a factor in the passing game as Charles is in Kansas City. Out of that particular group, Peterson has the most receptions at 19, which is 22 fewer than Charles, and Lynch has the most receiving yards at 181, which is 202 yards fewer than Charles.
Charles has been the most reliable player on the Chiefs’ offense. There is no second running back who can give Charles a rest on the sideline and provide adequate production. On top of that, no wide receiver has been very reliable this year. Dwayne Bowe has been massively disappointing this season. While Donnie Avery has had moments, he still does not provide the consistency in the passing game that Charles has. Comparing Charles to Peterson, Lynch, or Sproles is a bit unfair. All four players are in very different situations.
The defense has deservedly received most of the attention for the Chiefs’ turnaround. Without a league-best effort, this team would probably be 6-2. But what Charles has done offensively is just as important. However, Charles hasn't had a tremendous turnaround like the defense has had compared to last year.
As a whole, the Kansas City offense hasn’t been great, but middle of the road. A team with a top-five defense can win a bunch of games even with a mediocre offense. If the Chiefs really want to make noise in the playoffs, the passing game will probably need to improve. But without the high level of production from Charles, this offense is even worse.