KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles has produced what may be the quietest 1,220 yards the NFL has ever seen.
Charles regained the AFC rushing lead with his 165-yard performance last week at Cleveland with his fourth 100-yard performance in five weeks.
But with the Chiefs mired in a 2-11 season, even his dazzling 80-yard touchdown run on the opening play of the Cleveland game was just a footnote on the highlight shows, which featured more meaningful games.
“Jamaal is the best player we have,” linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “We lean on him a lot.”
Charles carried more than a football the last two weeks. He has also carried the burden of caring for a heart-broken family. Charles’ wife, Whitney, was first cousin of Kasandra Perkins, who was murdered on Dec. 1 by Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who then committed suicide.
The next day, Charles rushed for 127 yards in the Chiefs’ 27-21 win over Carolina, which snapped an eight-game losing streak. Charles’ 9.2-yard per carry average at Cleveland last week raised his career mark to 5.75, which surpassed Hall of Famer Jim Brown (5.22) for the best average in NFL history for backs with at least 700 carries.
Charles, who turns 26 on Dec. 27, has not publically spoken about his grief and how he has overcome his anguish to perform at such a high level.
He has a message on his Twitter account that reads: “I want to thank everybody for your support. The Lord has blessed me and allowed me to take care of my family through football.”
Charles’ teammates can only marvel at his fortitude.
“His faith is strong,” said Johnson, a fellow Texan and University of Texas product. “He’s a pro. Could he have handled this in his first two years? I don’t know. But with this experience that has gone on, he can handle it. And he’s handled it quite well.”
Quarterback Brady Quinn said: “How he’s able to have an optimistic perspective throughout all the things he’s battling through right now speaks to who he is as a man.”
Charles’ third 1,100-yard-plus season in the past four years has been even more impressive considering he was coming off knee surgery after suffering a season-ending injury in the second game of the 2011 season.
There was concern how much pounding his slender, 5-foot-11, 199-pound body could take, but Charles dispelled that fear in week three, when he carried 33 times for 233 yards and also caught six passes for 55 yards in the Chiefs’ overtime win at New Orleans.
“He’s tough,” tackle Branden Albert said. “Everybody respects his speed, but he’s a tough cookie. He runs that ball hard like he’s 250 pounds. He goes between the tackle … he can run the ball outside. He does it all. That’s what makes him special. He gets hit and he keeps on ticking. And not to be that big of a guy, he runs the ball hard.”
Charles displayed that toughness in the second quarter at Cleveland when at the end of a 15-yard run, he bruised some ribs when he landed on the ball while being tackled. Charles sat out the rest of that possession and the next one but returned for the final series of the half and carried seven times in the second half.
“He’s a special player,” tackle Eric Winston said. “I think he’s just getting 100 percent healthy now, too. It’s even more amazing what he’s done already this year.”
Charles, a former track star at Texas, now has three of the longest runs in Chiefs history — a franchise-record 91-yarder earlier this year at New Orleans; an 80-yard run at St. Louis in 2010 and the 80-yard run at Cleveland, where he broke through right guard Jon Asamoah, followed a crunching block by fullback Patrick DiMarco and put safety T.J. Ward on the ground with a stutter step before outracing the secondary to the end zone.
“His breakaway speed sets him apart,” Winston said. “He’s got to be in the top 1-2-3 home-run hitters in the league. On the 80-yard run, guys had some angles on him, and they weren’t even coming close. He’s not just a speedster, though. He does a good job of getting up in there and getting three or four yards when it’s called for that. He’s able to make guys miss, he’s got that ability where he can stop and go somewhere else. His vision helps, the way he can maneuver around out there … it’s fun to watch.”
The Chiefs will be even more dependent on Charles during the final three games of the season. With wide receiver Dwayne Bowe out for Sunday’s game at Oakland and most likely out for season, Charles — whose 33 rushes of 10 yards or more rank fourth in the NFL — is the Chiefs’ only legitimate playmaker.
“As you look at it, he’s been the consistent staple in our offense because he gains yards,” coach Romeo Crennel said, “and he’s the guy who has the potential to run for a touchdown.”
If Charles continues his current pace of 94 yards per game, he’ll finish with 1,502, breaking his personal best of 1,467 in 2010, when he went to his only Pro Bowl. Despite leading the AFC in rushing, Charles is just fifth in the Pro Bowl balloting, underscoring how quiet his season has been.