The locker room was nearly empty. Thirty minutes had passed, maybe more. Guys had showered, changed out of their uniforms and into their jeans. They’d shaken their heads and walked slowly out the door and into the world. How could they comfort the man who thought it was all his fault?
They vowed to come back strong. That they are professionals, that it’s a long season, that all their goals are still in front of them, and it almost sounded convincing.
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The Chiefs lost a stunner to the Broncos on Thursday in a standalone, national broadcast at a rocking Arrowhead Stadium. But the final score of 31-24 didn’t begin to describe it.
Jamaal Charles, one of the most liked, respected and accomplished men the Chiefs employ, fumbled the last play that mattered. One moment he was taking a routine handoff to the left side. The next moment, the ball was out and the Broncos had it in the end zone. They’d won the game. The field was now their dance floor.
Charles had the ball in the wrong arm and should’ve had both arms on it for protection, or maybe this was the coach’s fault for calling that particular play. Either way, Charles was there, standing in front of a swarm of cameras and notebooks and blaming himself for one of the most brutal and dumbfounding losses in a franchise history full of them.
“I caused the loss today,” he said. “I tried to put the team on my back, and I ended up losing the game. That was all on me tonight.”
How do you comfort that man? This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. Charles is a star, and not just a star, but a loved star. He has elite track speed but has made himself one of the NFL’s best running backs through vision and balance and toughness. He is shy by nature, and relentless. Teammates look up to him. Coaches adore him.
It’s easier when you can blame Lin Elliott, or Elvis Grbac.
Charles is different. This is his eighth year. He started as the Chiefs’ third-string running back behind Larry Johnson and Kolby Smith. He played special teams, and even in his second year he was left off the active roster once. The Chiefs tried to trade him for a midround pick, but the other team wouldn’t bite.
Nothing’s ever been easy for Charles. He has played for four different coaches and taken handoffs from 11 different quarterbacks. He ripped his knee falling into the mascot on the sideline in Detroit, and the next year he ran for 1,509 yards for a 2-14 team.
He deserved better than this, than standing there feeling like he’d let down his friends and teammates.
He was being hard on himself. He did not cause this loss. This wasn’t all on him. The Chiefs had five turnovers. Eleven penalties. They had the ball inside the 20-yard line three times without scoring. Charles fumbled one of those, too, but there was a lack of execution and a seemingly passive bit of play-calling that fans quickly cursed.
Rookie cornerback Marcus Peters made a terrific play on a wobbling pass by Peyton Manning, returning the interception for a touchdown, but the Chiefs had at least two more chances for picks that fell to the turf.
“Obviously, you can’t believe it,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “Just a shock.”
It was hard to think straight Thursday night. The players were still stunned, falling back on cliches that would get the reporters away soon enough. This was going to be their chance, too, before the Broncos stomped on their hearts.
The Chiefs could have won this game a dozen different ways. Should have won at least five different ways, and if they had, man, that might’ve changed the whole season.
They did more than enough to win Thursday. They beat the Broncos in many aspects of the game, but they beat themselves in more. They led by 14 in the first half and by seven with 2:32 left. They had the ball, score tied in the last minute, and the worst imaginable scenario was going to overtime.
Then, well, then came the moment that Charles is probably still kicking himself about. That fumble. His second of the game. How did that happen?
“Football is a great sport to watch because crazy things can happen,” said right tackle Jah Reid.
He’s right, of course, but the craziest things always seem to happen to the Chiefs. Too often, it seems, they find themselves as extras in someone else’s highlight.
What separates this loss from the Lin Elliott Game or 38-10 in Indianapolis is the stakes: This happened in week two, and those other debacles occurred in the playoffs. But that’s little solace at the moment.
After Charles put the loss on himself for at least the second time, someone from the Chiefs’ public relations department broke up the interview.
Charles started to walk slowly toward the buckets of Gatorade against a wall of the locker room. How do you comfort that man?
Justin Houston saw Charles and walked over. He whispered something, nodded his head, and the two men slapped hands. The Chiefs have been urging Houston to take on more leadership. He’s earned it. Guys like Charles have done it long enough. This is the cycle.
“We all (messed) up,” Houston said to his friend. “I (messed) up, too. This ain’t a one-man show. This ain’t LeBron’s house.”
There weren’t many people left in the locker room by this point, but Houston said this loud enough that they could hear. He sort of grunted to emphasize the point, then smiled at its simplicity.
Charles messed up. They all messed up. How do you comfort that man? You do the only thing you can.
You walk out the door, head up high, determined to make the next time different. They have 14 games left. More, if they’re good enough.