In retrospect, perhaps asking Jamaal Charles to repeat what he did in 2013 wasn’t fair.
That year, Charles was 27 years old ― in his zenith ― and playing behind a fairly capable offensive line. He also had one of the game’s best offensive minds, Andy Reid, calling plays for him in an offense perfectly designed for his talents ― against a last-place schedule, no less.
All of that added up to a career season in which the Chiefs went 11-5, Charles posted career highs of 1,980 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns and generally performed so well that he got a new contract after the season, even though he had two years remaining on a team-friendly deal.
So yes, when you consider all that, Charles’ performance during an injury-riddled 2014 ― in which he gained 1,324 yards from scrimmage and scored a team-high 14 touchdowns in 15 games ― doesn’t quite measure up to that standard.
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But to be fair, that is still elite production, which is all the more impressive when you consider he was running behind an offensive line that was weaker than it was in 2013 because of a devilish combination of injuries, youth and multiple free-agent departures.
“It was just frustrating,” Charles said. “It wasn’t the line; it was just me getting hurt. I had never played a whole season where I had nagging injuries and I can go in and I’ve got to come back out because my ankle hurt. And that was all the frustration ― it wasn’t about the team. The team did a great job. We won nine games last year, so it couldn’t be the team.
“It was me because I missed a game and I felt like my team needed me. Even though Knile (Davis) did a great job, it just was frustrating getting hurt.”
Charles missed that game last year because of a high ankle sprain. He also concerned many when he admitted to experiencing a symptom of a concussion after a hard hit against the Chargers, though the Chiefs insist they vigilitantly followed league protocol regarding testing and say Charles ― who left the wild-card loss in January 2014 because of a concussion ― cleared all of them.
But hope, as always, springs eternal this time of year, and there’s no shortage of optimism around the Chiefs regarding Charles’ capabilities this season, starting, of course, with the man himself.
“Feeling great,” Charles said. “I feel like I’m young all over again. I feel like I am 20, 21. I feel good, I feel healthy, I eat right, I take vitamins, I do yoga. I am doing everything I am supposed to do to keep my body up at age.”
In December, Charles turns 29, which is historically an age where backs start to decline to some degree. It happened to LaDainian Tomlinson, whose yards-per-carry average dropped from 4.7 the previous year to 3.8, and Shaun Alexander, whose dropped from 5.1 to 3.6.
But it doesn’t always happen ― several well-known backs, including Frank Gore, Jerome Bettis and Edgerrin James ― each rushed for over 1,000 yards and saw their averages rise at that age, and Charles is confident advances in modern medicine and training techniques will help him extend his career.
“(The game) has changed,” Charles said. “They’ve got all kinds of technology now, all kinds of medicine people have come up with to stay healthy. At the end of the day, an ACL you couldn’t play (with), it was the end of a career. Now they’ve got all kinds of things that you can be back in like five or four months. The future is changing, football is changing, sports are just changing.
“You can see basketball, like Kobe Bryant, he is still playing at 36. You see Tim Duncan (is 39) … I want to play another six years, so my form is to keep on taking my diet. I’m seeing guys at 37 or 38 still playing football in the trenches, and that’s somewhere where you don’t want to play.”
Charles is serious about playing that long, apparently. He even has told that to Davis, his backup who rushed for a career-high 132 yards on 32 carries in Charles’ absence in a 34-15 win over the Dolphins last September.
“He says six more years, so I’m going to believe it,” Davis said. “If you look in his locker, he’s got a lot of vitamins, a lot of different shakes that he takes. He does massages, chiropractor, a lot of different things to keep his body tip top. So he’s a true professional.”
To that end, Charles’ work ethic continues to impress running backs coach Eric Bieniemy.
“Each and every year, Jamaal always seems to amaze me,” Bieniemy said. “He is out here every day working his tail off and the thing that I appreciate about him is that he brings his professionalism in the classroom every single day.”
Reid likes what he sees, too, and says it’s up to the Chiefs to be smart about utilizing the other backs on the roster to give Charles a rest during the season.
“Right now he looks good ― he’s in great shape,” Reid said. “You try to spot him the best you can during the season. He obviously doesn’t want to be spotted, but you try and spot him as best you can during the season.”
Charles, however, is doing what he needs to do to again carry the load.
At 204 pounds, he is a little lighter than he typically is this time of year ― “I normally start at 207,” he said ― and throughout organized team activities, the trademark spring in his step was undeniably there, with confidence in a rebuilt offensive line, to boot.
“I just feel comfortable because I feel like I have a Pro Bowl guard (Ben Grubbs) in front of me and I’ve got Jeff (Allen) back and we went to the playoffs with him,” Charles said. “We’ve got Fish (Eric Fisher) who is developing more in his third year, we’ve got Donald (Stephenson) and he played a whole season and did a great job when Branden (Albert) and Fish were going at it and battling for depth at the position.
“I feel like we’ve got some guys that have been playing for a while. We’ve got vet guys up there that can help the young guys. I feel so comfortable with that line now. Not saying I didn’t last year, but I feel a lot more comfortable than I did last year.”
Provided that’s true, that could not only mean trouble for the Chiefs’ opponents this year, it could also ―in the long-term, at least ― go a long way toward helping Charles build his Hall of Fame case.
Charles’ 6,856 career rushing yards ranks 61st. Fourteen of the top 18 retired backs who have cracked the 11,000-yard barrier have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and LaDanian Tomlinson will eventually make it 15.
So yes, Charles is aiming high this year, and he certainly isn’t ready to call it quits any time soon.
“I just want to change the game with the running backs,” Charles said. “I want this to last longer and then when I retire, I’ll be happy with where I end my career at.”