Jamaal Charles, 25, is only in his fifth season, but at the pace he’s going, he may be on track to become the greatest running back in Chiefs history. After three games, Charles leads the NFL in rushing. And as the Chiefs celebrate their 50th year in Kansas City by welcoming home former players for Sunday’s game against San Diego, Charles certainly is in the conversation with the likes of Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Christian Okoye, Marcus Allen, Ed Podolak and Abner Haynes as the franchise’s top back.
With every step he takes, Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles seems to shatter yet another franchise record.
Longest run in Chiefs history? Check. Charles set that record last week with his 91-yard touchdown burst at New Orleans.
Most yards in a game? Check. Charles set that record with 259 yards in the 2009 season finale at Denver and rolled up the second-most yards last week with 233 against the Saints.
Most yards per carry? Check. Charles’ 6.05-yard career average not only is the best average in Chiefs history, it’s the best in NFL history for runners with at least 300 rushing attempts, topping Bo Jackson’s 5.40.
Charles, 25, is only in his fifth season, but at the pace he’s going, he may be on track to become the greatest running back in Chiefs history.
“Jamaal’s got a shot at being that,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson, who either played with or broadcast the games of every one of the Chiefs’ greatest backs. “He lost last year because of a knee injury, and it depends on how he does from here on out. The real great backs are available year after year.”
After three games, Charles leads the NFL in rushing despite a six-carry, three-yard game in week two at Buffalo. And as the Chiefs celebrate their 50th year in Kansas City by welcoming home former players for Sunday’s game against San Diego, Charles certainly is in the conversation with the likes of Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Christian Okoye, Marcus Allen, Ed Podolak and Abner Haynes as the franchise’s top back.
Holmes, signed as an unrestricted free agent, led the NFL in rushing in 2001 with a then-club record 1,550 yards; Okoye led the league in 1989 with 1,480 yards; Johnson led the AFC with a franchise-record 1,750 yards in 2005; and Haynes was the rushing champion in the first year of the AFL with 875 yards in a 14-game season for the 1960 Dallas Texans.
Allen was 33 years old when he joined the Chiefs as an unrestricted free agent in 1993 after 11 years with the Los Angeles Raiders, where he was a Super Bowl MVP. The Chiefs went to the postseason in four of his five seasons (they were 9-7 in the other), including two 13-3 finishes, and haven’t won a playoff game since he retired following the 1997 season.
Podolak’s place in Chiefs history was cemented by the 1971 Christmas Day game against Miami when he produced 350 all-purpose yards (85 rushing, 110 receiving, 155 on returns), a NFL postseason record that still stands. Podolak, from Iowa, was the Chiefs’ career leading rusher at the time of his retirement in 1977.
“Podolak was a quarterback in college,” Dawson said. “He did not have the speed anywhere near of Charles. The Christmas Day game gives you something about his ability. That’s part of being a complete back. Taking punt returns, kickoff returns, had the ability to pass on a halfback option and was a good receiver.”
Dawson has one endearing memory of Okoye, the 260-pound Nigerian Nightmare, who ran over anything in sight.
“He was like a young bull,” Dawson said. “After a game, I’m in the locker room and (tackle) John Alt has black and blue marks from his butt all the way down to his ankles. I asked, ‘Man, what happened to you?’ He said, I got run over by Christian in practice.’ They knew they better get a block for Christian and get out of the way.”
Neither Holmes, the Chiefs’ career leader with 6,070 rushing yards and 76 rushing touchdowns during 2001-07, nor Charles, who finished second in the NFL in rushing with 1,456 yards in 2010, were acquired with the thought of being an every-down featured back.
The Chiefs went to training camp in 2001 with Tony Richardson as their top back before Holmes took over early in the season with his multiple skills as a runner and receiver.
“(Offensive coordinator) Al Saunders liked to get out on the perimeter, and Priest was a Marshall Faulk-type ” said Bill Kuharich, the Chiefs’ personnel director during 2000-08. “He could run to the perimeter, he could run inside, he was very good in the passing game, in the screen game and intermediate passing game.”
During 2001-03, Holmes averaged 1,398 rushing yards, set a since-broken, NFL single-season record of 27 touchdowns (all rushing) in 2003, and led the Chiefs in receiving with 74 receptions in 2003.
“Priest had very, very special vision,” Kuharich said. “He was able to anticipate and change directions without having to gear down his speed. He had a lot of special traits that Al’s offense, coming from the Rams with Marshall, could take advantage of.”
Holmes also benefited from one of the best offensive lines in pro football history, which included Hall of Famer Willie Roaf at left tackle, future Hall of Famer Will Shields at right guard; five-time Pro Bowler Brian Waters at left guard; and underrated center Casey Wiegmann.
“I can still visualize those sweeps with Priest running,” Dawson said. “All he did was follow the big guys.”
Johnson, a powerful 6-1, 230-pounder taken in the first round of the 2003 draft, was built to be an every-down back, but he had to impatiently cool his heels as an understudy until Holmes suffered a knee injury midway through the 2004 season.
Johnson was an immediate hit, rushing for 151 yards and two touchdowns in his first start against Denver. He eventually posted the Chiefs’ top two single-season rushing performances in history, 1,789 yards on an NFL-record 416 carries in 2006, one year after he ran for 1,750 yards.
“Larry was more of a power runner, a downhill runner,” Kuharich said. “He rather run over you and through you than around you. He was a very average pass blocker and average receiver, so he was a one-dimensional player. But he was very, good at that one dimension, which was running the football.”
Johnson was 55 yards short of catching Holmes for the franchise rushing record when off-field problems derailed his career, and he was released midway through the 2009 season.
“In 2007, we were 4-3 playing the Packers when Larry got hurt,” Kuharich said of a season-ending foot injury. “And we didn’t win another game. You can tell the difference an offense makes with Larry and without Larry you’re a different football team. You can’t sell Larry short.”
Because of Johnson’s injury and the need to add some speed to the offense, the Chiefs selected Charles in the third round out of Texas, where he was the fourth-leading rusher in Longhorns history and a Big 12 track champion in the 100 meters.
Then-offensive coordinator Chan Gailey wanted a change-of-pace to Johnson, and Charles, then just 21 years old, could return kicks and be a third-down back.
“When we drafted Jamaal, we knew how explosive he was,” said Herm Edwards, then the Chiefs head coach and now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “That’s the reason you draft a kid like that. Early in his career, he was immature, got nicked some.”
Charles didn’t do much as a rookie in 2008, but his 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown sparked a victory over Pittsburgh in 2009 (the Chiefs haven’t returned one for a score since). After Johnson was injured, Charles finished the 2009 season by reeling off four consecutive 100-yard games, capped by the 259-yard performance in the season finale at Denver, shattering Johnson’s single-game record of 211 yards.
A year later, Charles rushed for 1,467 yards and a 6.38-yard average, just a step behind the NFL record 6.40 by legendary Hall of Famer Jim Brown. Last week at New Orleans, Charles joined Brown as the only players in NFL history to record 225 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving in a game.
“The ability to break some of these records is his speed,” Kuharich said of Charles. “He’s got the Priest Holmes vision as well. He can make the right decision, which hole to go, and when he hits the hole, he’s faster through the hole than Priest because he has more speed.”
Charles, who missed the last 14 games of the 2011 season after requiring knee surgery, removed all doubt about the effect of the injury with last week’s performance against the Saints that also included a 40-yard run besides the 91-yarder. A conversation with his Aunt Arlene in Port Arthur, Texas, restored any lost confidence following the Buffalo game.
“Last week, a lot of people didn’t have a lot of belief in me,” Charles said. “I didn’t even really worry about that. My auntie was the first person I called after that game. She was like, ‘I know what you can do. I believe in your abilities. You’ve just got to go out there and execute, Jamaal. We know what type of running back you are.’
“What my auntie said, she gave me more comfort and some more confidence in my abilities, and I just try to go out there and show what I can do myself. The line did a great job of making the holes for me, and if I have somewhere to run, I can show everybody what I can do.”
Edwards said Charles is taking advantage of an offense that spreads the field with multiple receivers.
“When you spread people out like they do in the NFL,” Edwards said, “you have a chance now with a guy like that to have explosive runs,” Edwards said. “You take the linebackers out of the core of the defense, and you spread ‘em out now, and you hit those cracks and all of a sudden he’s in the secondary running.”
Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, the club’s first-round draft pick in 2005, has absorbed Larry Johnson’s blows and chased Charles downfield in countless practice sessions, so he may appreciate their skills as much as anyone.
Who’s the best one, Derrick? Jamaal or Larry?
“When Larry was here,” Johnson said, “he was probably the best back in the league. But Jamaal’s my teammate. I’m a little biased. I’d say Jamaal ”
But if the Chiefs needed one yard, who would he go with?
“One yard?” Johnson said. “Jamaal. He might get 90 yards.”
Edwards was on the Chiefs staff as either a scout or assistant coach when Okoye and Barry Word exemplified the philosophy of coach Marty Schottenheimer’s Martyball by overpowering defenders in 1990-92; and when Allen led the Chiefs in rushing in 1993-95. Edwards was head coach of the Chiefs during 2006-08 when Johnson and Holmes were his running backs, and he drafted Charles in ’08.
Edwards said choosing the best running back in Chiefs history is a no-brainer.
“Marcus Allen,” said Edwards, now an analyst with ESPN.
We’re talking as a Chief, not as a Raider, Herm.
“Marcus Allen,” Edwards repeated. “He was a complete back. Did everything you asked a back to do. Not the fastest compared to the other guys, but great instincts by the goal line. You give it to Marcus at the 2, he was going to jump over everybody.
“You talk about a pro’s pro. If you brought a linebacker or extra safety for pressure on the quarterback, Marcus Allen put it on him.”
The Chiefs signed Allen and traded for quarterback Joe Montana in 1993 to lead the transition to the West Coast offense with the expectation Allen would be a role player on third down and in goal-line situations while former first-round pick Harvey Williams would be the featured back.
But Allen rushed for 764 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1993 when the Chiefs advanced to the AFC championship game. He fended off the challenge of another first-round pick, Greg Hill, and led the club in rushing in his first four of five seasons in Kansas City. Allen’s 44 rushing touchdowns rank third in club history to 76 by Holmes and 55 by Johnson.
“I love Jamaal Charles, and I hope Jamaal breaks all the records, I really do,” Edwards said. “If he touches the ball 25 times in a football game, he’s going to make a bunch of big plays for you. But for me, having been in football for a long time, Marcus Allen was unbelievable. When Marcus played, it was a running league, and he was durable. Marcus Allen was always available.
“When he was with us, Marcus was an old guy,” Edwards added. “But Marcus Allen was perfect. It’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame.”