Blood trickles down his left shin as Jamaal Charles explains to a reporter why he’s wearing only a towel.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
“Got these cuts,” he says, rubbing his arm and shoulder. “Can’t put clothes on just yet.”
Charles is headed to the trainer’s room soon. Bandages will keep him clean, and protect his clothes. He just got out of the cold tub. Hopefully the swelling will stay down this way. Too early to know for sure.
Here’s what the Chiefs’ most irreplaceable player does know, though: No new blisters on his toes, which means the bottom of his feet aren’t more gruesome than before the Chiefs’ 24-7 win over the Raiders. By now, that qualifies as good news.
“You don’t want to look at my toes right now,” Charles says with a smile.
Charles’ pain is the collateral damage of a still-undefeated team without enough offense. This team is built around a vicious defense, and with quarterback Alex Smith playing a second bad game in a row the Chiefs have no choice but to find out how much Charles can take.
The risk is in finding out.
The Chiefs are climbing the metaphorical mountain, which is great, but they’d be better off not turning Charles into their metaphorical Sherpa. This is the uncomfortable reality that, understandably, nobody wants to talk about in the glow of a season with building promise.
But with the Chiefs managing just 216 yards against the Raiders, and Charles accounting for 128 of them … imagine this offense without its only real playmaker. Coach Andy Reid and quarterback Smith have always been at their best when the ball is spread around, and finding ways to do that going forward is critical for the rest of the Chiefs season.
Charles is one of the NFL’s most dynamic players, a wicked combination of championship track speed and small-town Texas toughness. He is running for 5.58 yards per carry, the highest mark in league history, and the Chiefs are right to want everything they can get out of him.
“He’s so fast, people try to look at him like a track guy, like some other backs in the league,” says Brandon Flowers, who joined the Chiefs with Charles out of the 2008 draft. “But he grounds and pounds and wears you down. He does it all in one. You don’t need thunder and lightning. You got both of them with J-Charles. He carries this team, man. He carries this team.”
But they should also be afraid of asking him to do so much of the carrying.
Charles entered this week’s games as the AFC’s leading rusher. Against the Raiders, he ran for 78 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. He caught five more passes for 50 yards, which means he now has more than half the team’s combined rushes and receptions.
He’s on pace for 392 touches, which would be more than anybody in the league over the last five years except for Arian Foster (393 in 2010) and Chris Johnson (408 in 2009). Coincidence or not, each player’s production dropped in the seasons following all that work.
Again, the Chiefs are winning games and as far as these things go, figuring out how much to use one of the game’s best backs is a good problem to have. And some of this is positive: Charles’ carries have ballooned in the fourth quarter as the Chiefs protect leads.
But some of this is on the play-calling, too. Charles went up the middle on two of the Chiefs’ last three plays before halftime. There’s always the possibility of him breaking a long run, but realistically, this is just two extra and unnecessary opportunities for the Raiders to hurt Charles.
Basically, the Chiefs need some other ways to move the ball. Specifically, they need better from Smith, the offensive line and receivers.
This is two games in a row that Smith has struggled. Last week, it was discomfort against the blitz. This week, it was inaccurate passes even on some short and intermediate throws. He completed just 14 of 31 passes, his lowest percentage since 2007.
“It’s kind of a little bit ugly the last two weeks, for sure,” Smith says. “It’s tough.”
The Chiefs are good enough defensively that the standard lowers for Smith and the offense. They don’t need greatness. Only adequacy. Six straight wins means they’ve been good enough, but the next step is something you might call “sustainable adequacy” — which requires eliminating the need to use Charles like a pack mule.
The Chiefs are on their best start in (at least) a decade. Their defense is the best in the AFC, at least, and the schedule continues to open in front of them. The view on this season has changed, and drastically. Six games in and the Chiefs are still undefeated. This is no longer about just being good.
To be more than that, the Chiefs will need Charles healthy and fresh — and hopefully able to put on a shirt without medical care.