When I was growing up in Michigan as a Chiefs fan, it wasn’t easy to watch Chiefs games because I go Lions games. I don’t dislike the Lions, they are my hometown team and I generally root for them unless they are playing the Chiefs. My parents both lived in Missouri for a period and my dad grew up in Iowa, he chose to be a Chief fan and he passed that down on to me and my siblings. They aren’t as into sports, my brother will talk to me every once in a while and my sister has no interest, but I became a much bigger sports fan than either of them. I formed an attachment of sorts to the running back position as a child and the first back I really remember was Priest Holmes; I was nine when he came over to KC from Baltimore and proceeded to blow up statistically. He caught my attention and quickly became my favorite player.
He had such an impact on my fandom that I even wanted to be a running back when I started playing football in the fifth grade. Looking back now, I was much more suited to play tight end with my build, but that didn’t stop me from trying. I swore up and down I was a running back until my eighth-grade season where I was just too big to play in the backfield any longer. Over six feet in height and approaching 200 pounds I was moved to offensive line and defensive line, but my passion for the position did not lose its legs. I started paying attention more to football in a legendary time for Chiefs running backs. I didn’t know it yet, but I was witnessing the greatest trio of running backs the franchise would ever see. Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, and Jamaal Charles are the top three yardage leaders in Kansas City Chiefs history and these backs imprinted themselves on to my adolescent years in a way that I still see today.
Watching these three backs is something not many franchises get to witness, especially in back to back to back years. I used Larry Johnson in passwords on the computer, Holmes got me into fantasy football with his record-breaking run scoring 48 touchdowns from the 2002 season through the 2003 season, and Charles redefined the way I looked at running backs in the NFL. Holmes was an exceptional all-around back in his career, I can say that looking back at it, but I didn’t see it much at the time it was happening. I was a teenager when Charles took over as the lead back in KC and understood the game much better at that point. When Charles played, it was in a much different way. Both Holmes and Johnson were at or near 220 pounds and they were much more powerful backs and you could see it the way they played the game.
Charles seemed to almost glide when he ran, weighing in at just under 200 pounds, his frame was not that of a Holmes or Johnson. His size and frame are perfect for today’s NFL and it showed in the multitude of ways they used him early in his career. Todd Haley would split him out to the slot, out wide, and line him up in the backfield. He has such a versatile skill set and that drew me in as a fan to wanting to see Charles play every Sunday.
The Chiefs didn’t fully know what they had in Charles when he was drafted, a third-round pick out of Texas, and he didn’t see the bulk of the carries until week ten of his sophomore season in the NFL. He didn’t look back from that point, every season he played the majority of the games and was healthy he rushed for over 1,000 yards. He was so unique in the way he played the game and I’m going to go back to what I mentioned earlier about him “gliding”, it was the first time I remember witnessing a back weave through a defense the way he did. It was unique to Charles among the three backs I watched a lot of growing up and it’s one of, if not the, most underappreciated parts of his game.
The way Charles moved was different to me in the sense that he didn’t need to initiate contact with defenders to break tackles. He set them up with his vision and footwork so that he could weave in and around them. He always knew where the open spaces he could operate in were and how to lead defenders in a way that allowed him to get to that open space. Here, we can see him locate the open space quickly and then accelerate to it which drew defenders to him. Then, he would stop or break a tackle and immediately find the next open area and get to it. His ability to change direction at multiple different speeds was unique and helped him “weave” in and out of traffic with relative ease.
He could do this near top speed which made him even more dangerous around the open field and the Chiefs offense was predicated on getting Charles to the edge or a cutback lane quickly. He accelerates to the edge so quickly that if defenses were a step late, which they usually were, he would regularly get 10-15 yard chunk plays. The elusiveness Charles had was paired with speed that not many running backs have. He ran a 4.36 forty yard dash at the combine which is blazing for a running back and something he got the chance to show off a lot with Kansas City.
This is a play that I remember very vividly, as it turned the tide of this entire game the Chiefs were surely going to lose to the Saints. They were down 24-6 and on their own 9-yard line. I mentioned that getting Charles to the edge was a focal point of their run game and he didn’t disappoint. If you can ignore the blatant hold from the left tackle, which the ref did as well, we can appreciate this 91-yard touchdown run for what it is. Charles gets to the sideline untouched where he is unleashed on the angles from chasing defenders and not one of them is going to be able to catch him. He was a menace on the edges and up the sidelines for this exact reason, he had true breakaway speed.
His speed in getting to the edge often forced the defense to over pursue and shift heavily to the direction of the run. With zone concepts, large cutback lanes often present themselves and are a natural occurrence in the blocking scheme itself. Charles has the ability to put his foot in the ground and hit these cutback lanes with regularity and get more chunk plays, preying on the way defenses tried to prevent him from getting to the edge. He was a difficult matchup for opposing defenses with his blend of speed and elusiveness, but then you add in his contact balance, which got better as he matured, and you have a back that was unstoppable when healthy.
This is one of my favorite plays from Charles’ career and it is a wonderful example of everything I’ve just tackled about. He makes a great cutback along the offensive line and then begins to weave to set up defenders to bounce off of defenders. He stays on his feet and then speeds away to the endzone for a great touchdown against a division rival. He did some of his best work against in-division opponents and was on a bad team until Reid came along. He only got two healthy seasons of Charles, but he made it a point to showcase all of his talents.
Charles was a capable pass-catching back in his own right coming out of Texas, but Reid came to Kansas City looking to exploit Charles catching ability. Charles has 104 targets in his first season under Reid, that had some to do with the offense and probably more to do with Alex Smith as the quarterback. He was more willing to check the ball down to Charles as an outlet and call screens for him. Getting the ball into their most dynamic playmaker’s hands was a priority.
This is from the most recognizable screen attack game in recent memory. The Chiefs constantly attacked the Raiders through the screen game and they did it early and often. This was from ten seconds into the game and Charles makes this play what it turned into by drawing three defenders to one blocker where he can get to the sideline free of anyone. Then he turns on the jets and it’s over from there, but that ability to hesitate slightly to force three Raiders to get blocked by one guy is exceptional. Charles was just different in his prime.
For my money, he was an extremely underrated short-yardage back as well. With his ability to manipulate second-level players and make defenders miss, he was able to score from truly anywhere on the field and I don’t think that was used enough when the Chiefs needed one or two yards. His injuries took a lot from his career and will possibly take the Hall of Fame from him as well. His prime was among the best in NFL history and that is shown by his career yards per attempt number being 5.4. He never averaged below five yards a carry as a Chief. That number I just mentioned is good enough for the best in NFL history.
Getting to watch the running back that changed the way I watched running backs in the NFL was truly a sight to behold. I never got to analyze his game the way I have with Kareem Hunt or Damien Williams. Reliving the greatness of a guy like Charles gives me hope that he can one day get into the Hall of Fame, but I know it’s a longshot. I wish that he could have stayed healthy enough to play a year or two with Mahomes and win the ring they got last season. He deserved it and it would have been the icing on the cake for his great career; all-time leading Chiefs rusher, 2 all-pro teams, and leading NFL history in yards per rush is impressive. Getting to see him in person would have been something special. I will always value the running back position in my heart and mind in a different way than it’s valued in today’s NFL and I can thank the trio of Chiefs’ greats for that, Charles chief among them.