KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Eric Winston comes from a culture where running the football is a way of life. His former team, the Houston Texans, was in the NFL’s top 10 in rushing the last two seasons and last year led the league in attempts.
He knows what goes into a strong running game, and he said it’s more than a solid group of blockers and a skilled back.
“The big thing is you have to be committed to it, from the quarterbacks willing to carry out the fakes to receivers willing to go in and dig out the safeties to make 6-yard plays into 16-yard plays,” said Winston, signed by the Chiefs in March to be their starting right tackle. “There’s no turning back. You’ve got to be fully committed to it. If guys don’t want to commit to it, they don’t need to be here. That’s the way we were in Houston.”
The Chiefs would like to be that way as well. They led the league in rushing two years ago when they won the AFC West, but lost their way last season amid a pile of other problems.
As the Chiefs wrap up their offseason practice schedule today with a final minicamp workout, it’s already evident their running game will have to carry them this season if the Chiefs are to be a part of the AFC West race.
For now, the Chiefs are working without two of their top pass catchers. Dwayne Bowe is unsigned and absent from the offseason work, while Tony Moeaki continues his recovery from knee surgery.
The Chiefs are hopeful Moeaki will return in time for training camp, but there’s no guarantee Bowe will play at all. Even if both players are back in time for the start of the regular season, the Chiefs are still built to run.
Their three major offensive free-agent signings were aimed at the running game: Winston, running back Peyton Hillis and 255-pound tight end Kevin Boss. Then there’s the scheduled return of Jamaal Charles, who missed all but the first two games last season because of torn knee ligaments.
Like Moeaki, Charles hasn’t practiced since his injury but should be back in time for the start of camp. One of the most important jobs at camp will be to get Charles back to what he was before the injury.
“Being on the field and actually getting the reaction time and seeing the defenses across from him. I think those are the things that you miss when you’re not able to practice,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said of Charles. “He’s in the meeting room and he’s picking up the terminology and things like that, but when the ball is snapped and you have it under your arms, you have to make that instant decision, he misses out on those things. We’ll wait for training camp to see how he does.
“We’ll put him in there and we’ll kind of take our time with him, let him get his legs back under him and let him get confidence in his injury. As he gains confidence and is able to do more things, then I think we’ll be able to see the old guy coming back.”
Hillis, at 250 pounds, should present a nice balance to the speed of Charles. It should be a successful season for the Chiefs if they can find a way to get the ball to Charles and Hillis at least 500 times between them.
“I think it’s going to be a good combination,” Charles said. “I like his game. He’s athletic, he’s big, he’s strong.
“He’s bringing power, explosiveness, he’s strong, he’s going to catch the ball, he’s got great hands. I feel he’s an all-around player like me, so I feel like we can move the ball.”
Hillis is coming off an injury-plagued season for Cleveland. He missed six games and rushed for fewer than 600 yards, so the Chiefs need to get him back to what he was in 2010, when he ran for almost 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“I know we have another great back here in Jamaal Charles, and having a complementary back like me come in there and help him … it’s not as fun when you take all the beating and all the pounding,” Hillis said. “So when you have a guy in there that you know is just as good, if not a lot better than you are, that’s really good too.”