Even amid a career derailed by a season-ending knee injury in 2011 and dimmed by the Chiefs’ wretched 2012 season, running back Jamaal Charles had emerged from it all with a remarkable distinction: the best rushing average in NFL history, 5.79 yards a carry, among players with 300 or more attempts.
But that was then.
Now, his considerable aptitude as a receiver made him ideal for repurposing in new coach Andy Reid’s West Coast Offense. And that tweak in his role had been evident through most of the Chiefs’ first two games and nearly all day Sunday against Dallas, when he was a non-factor as a rusher.
Until the Chiefs’ final offensive series, that is.
The time that came to matter most.
To that point, Charles’ skewed stat line showed a career-high eight catches for 48 yards and a touchdown and a mere eight carries for a meager eight yards.
Between the way his game was trending and the fact he was coming off a quadriceps injury last week against Jacksonville that held him out of some practice this week, what came next was no sure thing.
Except, apparently, to Charles and Reid.
“He said, ‘Give me the ball. We need to end this thing the right way,’ ” Reid said.
Reid may have been speaking more figuratively than literally: If Charles was that audacious, he didn’t acknowledge it through the waves of media after the game.
Instead, he said he didn’t expect to have the game thus put in his hands because he thought Reid might notice, “I was winded and I was tired.”
Certainly, Reid hadn’t even told him to brace himself for what was ahead.
“Nah, he didn’t tell me,” Charles said, smiling. “But in my mind and in my heart, I had to win this game for my team, and I went out there and tried to do that.”
The Chiefs had a precarious 17-16 lead and the ball at their own 16 with 3 minutes, 48 seconds left and the Cowboys eager to pounce on one last opportunity.
But they wouldn’t touch the ball again until 16 seconds remained, at their own 4-yard line, after Charles was handed the ball again and again and again and again as they sealed up the narrow victory.
Six straight times to start the drive, including one called back for a Chiefs penalty, Charles took the ball and smashed into the Cowboys, who were forced to use all three timeouts as time evaporated.
“I was very happy I got to carry my team on my back,” he said.
Then after two pivotal penalties helped the Chiefs, he’d carry three more times to the Dallas 41 before a Dustin Colquitt punt pinned the Cowboys.
All told, he ran 47 yards on eight carries on the drive.
“So don’t sleep on us running the ball,” he said, adding a “shoutout” to the offensive line.
If his numbers weren’t gaudy, they were as gritty and meaningful as it gets.
“He’s fast and very elusive,” Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. “You can only slow him down; you’re not going to be able to stop him.
“You can see how good of a back he is at the end of the game.”
About the only instance on the drive when Charles wasn’t in the right position was to block on third-and-five at the Chiefs’ 49 attempt that would have been a sack if not for the Chiefs being penalized for delay of game.
Then a pass interference call on third and 10 kept it alive for Charles to grind the clock further down after the 2-minute warning, serving to amplify a point that had been on his mind earlier this week as he was questioned about his ability to return from the quad injury.
“I’m a tough player,” he had said. “Nobody knows about it, but I’m really a tough player, and I fight through pain.”
He grinned Sunday when asked if the injury had bothered him.
“I mean, I felt it – you know what I’m saying?” he said, adding, “It was time to go play. There was no turning back.”
As for demonstrating toughness?
If there were doubters, he said, smiling, “Someone might change their mind today.”
Never mind if his job description technically might have changed along the way, that his ratio of rushes to carries a year is evolving, from 285-35 a year ago to 32-11 this year.
Ultimately, it’s an expanded, diversified role.
Even if he did allow as to how “it’s kind of weird how the offense is set up,” Charles gets that it’s better for the team and him. He had seen the superstar potential already last summer when he spoke of stacking “Pro Bowls upon Pro Bowls” in Reid’s format.
But an emphasis on his versatility doesn’t represent any fundamental difference in how he sees himself as a player.
“My job is to go out there and help my team win,” he said. “And I don’t care how many times I ran the ball or catch the ball. As long as at the end of the day we have a ‘W’ on the board, I’m happy and smiling.”
Especially when at the end of the day he was able to put it away.
“My job,” Charles said, “was to win the game for my team.”