KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the spring, on what seemed at the time to be a good day for his rehab, running back Jamaal Charles promised that last season’s knee injury and the resulting surgery would be quickly forgotten once he returned to the football field.
“When I touch that field again, you’re going to feel my pain,” Charles said, speaking to what was then a distant Chiefs opponent. “You’re going to go through what I went through. It’s going to be that way for me the rest of my career.”
That wasn’t necessarily a good day for Charles. Instead, it was just Charles baring his soul. The time for him to back up those words begins on Sunday, when the Chiefs open their regular season against Atlanta at Arrowhead Stadium.
In the intervening months, Charles hasn’t backed off that statement. In fact, on Wednesday, he embraced it.
“Everything I said in an interview when I met with you all in the offseason, that’s part of what I’m going to do Sunday,” Charles said. “I spoke it, I have to prove it. I feel good. I feel great right now. I just can’t wait for the opportunity when it comes.”
Those are sweet words to the Chiefs. Their running game dried up after Charles was lost for the season last year after tearing his ACL in a September game at Detroit.
He looked like the Charles of old in his limited chances in the preseason, showing the speed and moves that helped him rush for 1,467 yards and a 6.4-yard average in 2010.
The Falcons are expecting the same Charles as before the injury.
“They’ll give him his touches,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “There are so many guys on that offensive side that can cause you problems, but I anticipate seeing him a lot on Sunday. He’s a guy that can really hurt you on the outside, and he’s a great cutback runner.
“Jamaal Charles is probably one of the three fastest guys, running backs, in the National Football League. He may be the No. 1 guy. He has great speed, and he’s a good cutback runner.”
Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said he won’t limit Charles because he is coming off the knee injury. But they didn’t want to place too much of a burden on him, so they signed Peyton Hillis to share the load.
In their perfect world, the Chiefs will find plenty of work for both players. Game circumstances will determine how much the Chiefs use each player against the Falcons and beyond.
“The good thing about that is that I’ve got this guy named Hillis, who also could go into the game,” Crennel said. “I don’t think we’ll be disappointed when Hillis goes into the game.
“It’s just by how we feel and how it’s going. You can’t say how a game is going to go. We go up there and we work all these hours at night and put a game plan together, but if a play is not working, then you don’t keep calling that play. Whatever is working, that’s what we’re going to call. That’s why many times, you look at that offensive call sheet, and it has so many plays on it. If they’re not working, you have something else to go to.”
Crennel said the Chiefs would use Charles on Sunday as much as they believe is necessary to win the game. Those are sweet words to Charles.
“Whatever it is,” Charles said when asked how much he could carry the ball on Sunday. “I’m not backing down from any situation. I’m here and I’m not going (anywhere). I’ve been in every preseason game this year. That tells you a lot right there.
“I’m worried about the Falcons. I’m not worried about my knee. The only thing I’m worried about is staying healthy the whole season.”
Charles’ rehab has gone about as well as the Chiefs could have hoped. He played in a preseason game about 10 months after surgery, and it appeared he could have played in one much sooner.
“I felt great playing in the preseason games, getting a feel, moving around, making the moves I used to make out there,” Charles said. “Every week I was trying to get better and better. I’m 11 months right now. I’m not even a year (since) my surgery. So I’m back earlier than some people are.”
The Chiefs have issued their depth chart for the Atlanta game, and it lists both Charles and Hillis as their starting running backs. Both could play enough that it seems they are regulars.
But not even Hillis is questioning which back the position belongs to.
“I still look at Jamaal as the starting running back,” Hillis said. “He deserves it. He’s one of the leaders on this team, and his past play has proved it.”