KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jamaal Charles joined the Chiefs five years ago as a third-round draft choice to serve as a backup running back to their starter, Larry Johnson.
Charles now finds himself in the same situation Johnson was then. He’s the incumbent, making a claim as the greatest Chiefs ball carrier of all time, yet the Chiefs just drafted another back, Knile Davis of Arkansas, in the third round — ostensibly to be his backup.
Charles saw how rapidly Johnson’s career declined. And this spring, he saw not only how big the 227-pound Davis is, but also that the rookie might be as fast as Charles.
So, even though Charles is only 26, he’s suddenly feeling his football mortality.
“There’s a short life for running backs,” Charles said. “I’m not worried about (Davis). He’s my teammate. I love the guy. I want him to come in and do great. I wish that to be known. But at the same time, I’ve got a family to feed. My main job is to stay on top of things as much as possible.”
Charles went on to say he doesn’t see his skills eroding in any way or his career coming to an end anytime soon. Instead, he looks at the success of Philadelphia running backs Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy and sees the possibility for bigger and better things in the offense of new Chiefs head coach Andy Reid.
“This offense might be the best thing that ever happened to me,” Charles said. “I think this offense will get me open. They’re going to throw me the ball more. I think I’ll continue to stack Pro Bowls on Pro Bowls if I can stay healthy.
“I definitely know my role. I’ve got a lot of stuff to program in my mind right now. There’s a lot of stuff in the Andy Reid offense, the same stuff he did with Westbrook and McCoy, and I think I fit his scheme as well as they did. Definitely more studying and definitely more knowing the scheme of the defense, especially when I go out there and play another position like wide receiver. I go in there and try to read the defense. I feel like this year it will be more than I catch out of the backfield.”
In drafting Davis, the Chiefs may be preparing for the eventual end of Charles’ career. But judging by how they used Charles in offseason practice, they don’t see that time coming soon.
Charles was used in a variety of spots and given the ball plenty.
“Really, the sky is the limit with him with what we’re trying to do,” offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “You can use him more in the passing game. You’ve seen him split out as a single receiver or come out of the backfield. He’s a guy you can move around and put in different positions, motion out of the backfield or shift him out of the backfield. He catches the ball so well. We have to take advantage of that offensively.”
Given his spot in a friendly offensive system, and the fact Charles rushed for a career-high 1,509 yards last season, it’s difficult to see the end of Charles’ career from here. But that final chapter has a way of coming for running backs when they don’t expect it.
One year after Priest Holmes rushed for 1,420 yards and a league-record (at the time) 27 touchdowns, Johnson had replaced him as the Chiefs’ featured back. Johnson’s career then began a rapid nosedive the year after he rushed for a team-record 1,789 yards.
It’s not surprising the Chiefs added a running back this year. Their intentions were obvious after last season’s alternate back, Peyton Hillis, flamed out.
But the Chiefs don’t view Davis as a player who will spend his entire career caddying for another guy, either. He had some injuries in college and a well-publicized fumbling problem, but it’s difficult to deny his ability.
“He’s a pretty fast guy,” Charles said. “He reminds me of me when I first came in.”
Davis also doesn’t appear intimidated by Charles or his new surroundings. He indicated he would win a footrace against Charles but didn’t intend to ask him for a match.
“I’m not going to race him (because) I don’t want him to damage his career,” Davis said.
Davis may spend the early portion of his career returning kicks and providing breaks for Charles, but he will eventually bust his way into the lineup if he can master his flaws. At that point, it will be up to Charles to hold him off.
In the short term, at least, Charles says he’s up to the challenge.
“I feel real good, like I can have a good year,” Charles said. “My body feels good. My knee is stronger. There’s a lot of stuff off my mind because I played last year after having the knee surgery. I want to have another great year and stack up the great years so people don’t feel I’m not the back I once was.”