There was a time Sunday, toward the end of the Chiefs’ 56-31 win over the Oakland Raiders, when tackle Donald Stephenson stood on the sideline staring at his team’s star running back with bewilderment.
There was Jamaal Charles, in the midst of a 215-yard, five-touchdown day that was ultimatelythe
story of week 15, acting like nothing special was going on.
“Jamaal’s just a goofball,” Stephenson said with a chuckle. “He’s that type of guy — humble, a cool dude. You look at his expressions and body language on the sideline, you’d think he might even have been struggling. He’s just chilling on the sideline and I had to think, like, ‘Wait, he had like five touchdowns.’
Charles’ sideline demeanor was even more impressive when you consider his monster day against Oakland not only earned him AFC offensive player of the week honors, it also thrust him into the discussion as a candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player or offensive player of the year.
“He’s got my vote,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “All the folks that were here today (Sunday), I’m sure he’s probably got their vote. I don’t know how many anybody can be more valuable to a team and to the success that we have had than he has. So I’m pulling for him.”
Under Reid’s watch, the sixth-year running back from Texas has evolved into an all-around threat in every sense of the term. He leads the Chiefs in rushing (246 carries for 1,181 yards and 11 touchdowns), catches (65) and receiving yards (655), and is just three receiving touchdowns short of becoming the first player in NFL history to record 10 rushing and 10 receiving touchdowns in the same season.
Through it all, teammates and coaches have heaped praise upon him, which isn’t uncommon in an NFL locker room. What is unusual, however, is the number of times they’ve referenced his toughness along the way, which is one of the highest compliments a player at a skill position can earn.
“Jamaal Charles has been really tough — that’s the word I would use for him,” said linebacker Derrick Johnson. “When he first got in the league, he was more of a scatback, a guy you would want to split out, not give a lot of carries. Since he got hurt (Charles blew out his knee in 2011), his game has elevated.”
Charles disputes the notion that the injury — a torn ACL that limited him to only 12 carries in 2011 — was, in effect, ana-ha
But he can’t say he didn’t learn from the experience.
“I just took a lesson from being hurt,” Charles said. “Never take anything for granted.”
Sometime after he shredded his ACL in Detroit, Charles says he came to believe that people had started to count him out.
“People forget about you, especially when you get hurt,” Charles said.
In retrospect, though, he came to realize that the way he approached his rehab would ultimately define how tough he really is.
“That was the worst injury I could ever go through,” Charles said. “I wish that on nobody.”
Two years later, it’s safe to say he’s come back better than before. Last season, he established himself as a downhill runner, someone who carries the ball with surprising toughness despite his 5-foot-11, 199-pound frame. In 2012, he rushed a career-high 285 times for 1,509 yards and five touchdowns against eight-man fronts and defenses designed to stop him.
“Hit them first before they hit you,” Charles said. “Every time I touch it, I try to play hard, rough, tough and try to kill people sometimes. That’s how you’ve got to take it, because when they have an opportunity to kill you, they will.”
This attitude, in addition to the physical toughness he showed by playing through a painful blister problem on his toes and carrying the offense during the first nine weeks of the season is what endears him to his linemen.
“(To see that) means a lot to us, because offensive linemen, (we play) one of those positions where you can’t afford to get hurt,” Stephenson said. “Even though you’re hurt, you’ve got to battle through some things. He takes that mind-set to the running back position. We see that and appreciate that.”
When asked recently if Charles looks as healthy as he’s been all season, Reid essentially said the injuries Charles was dealing with were typical nicks and bruises.
“We had him wear a couple pairs of socks (for his blisters),” Reid said. “It was that simple.”
Aside from improved offensive-line play and his presumably better health, there are a few other reasons for Charles’ recent surge. Backup Knile Davis has been receiving more playing time of late, which has allowed Charles to get a breather every now and then. Davis even got some work in the first half against the Raiders, something that rarely happened before the Chiefs’ bye week.
Reid said Charles also deserves credit for taking supreme care of his body, a sign of the mental toughness those who know him often crow about.
“That’s a very tough position to play in the National Football League,” Reid said. “You take a heck of a beating. But he handles all that. Makes sure he takes care of his body. Trains. Eats right. All that.”
Charles also practices his tail off. Reid noted that Charles always runs to the end zone after every carry in practice, something that’s not as common in the NFL as one might think.
“Some people find their (peak) at the beginning of the season, some people find their (peak) at the end of the season,” Charles said. “I’m known as a player (who), when the season keeps going on, I just get stronger and stronger. I just want to continue to do that and stay healthy because a big part of this team depends on me. Once I’m healthy, this offense can go a long way and this team can go a long way.”
His teammates believe it, too. Stephenson readily admits that he sees the 26-year old Charles as a Hall of Fame-type guy — his career yards-per-carry of 5.6 ranks first all-time among running backs, even ahead of Jim Brown — and thinks his best days are ahead of him..
“I don’t think we’ve seen it yet,” Stephenson said. “I think we’ve got a lot more great plays in him.”
For now, Charles is happy with being one of the league’s best backs, a guy who is in the midst of one of his very best seasons. Asked if Charles should be an MVP candidate, Stephenson doesn’t hesitate.
“I think so,” Stephenson said. “Easy.”